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Praise the Gourd

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On the Saturday after every Halloween of the past 25 years, men and machines have gathered on an open field to throw perfectly good pumpkins as far as possible—a phenomenon we know as Punkin Chunkin’. What started as a few characters of questionable sobriety spending a fall afternoon hurling gourds into the woods beyond Lewes has evolved into a three-day festival and “sport” that involves some pretty serious engineering of pneumatic cannons, catapults, trebuchets and more. There’s also a serious philanthropic effort, and very serious fun. As the event’s notoriety has grown, so has attention focused on Sussex, with film crews from around the world recording the spectacle and a few of the most colorful chunkers appearing on shows like “Late Night with David Letterman.” Yet the basic spirit of the original chunk—with the trash talkin’ and the braggin’ rights—remains the same. Sure, it’s a “redneck thing,” as some chunkers say, but isn’t it human nature to want to throw things? On the Chunk’s silver anniversary, we introduce you to some key figures. Keep your eye on the sky.

Former Punkin Chunkin’ Association president Frank Shade of Lewes (left) and longtime chunker Donny Jefferson of Milton stand in front of Bad to the Bone, which has  won the centrifugal division 14 years in a row. Photograph by Jared CastaldiDonny Jefferson

14-time Centrifugal Champion

With pirate flag flying, Donny Jefferson has led his Bad to the Bone team to victory 14 years in a row. Winning throws from his centrifugal machine often fly more than 2,700 feet, and though there are engineers who could calculate arc and release points, he builds and throws by feel. Not that there’s any need to tweak the machine, which is built of old parts from the farms of friends and neighbors. “It’s a crowd-pleaser,” Jefferson said in an interview for the Science Channel in 2008. “It’s loud, it spins fast, and it makes a lot of smoke.” And though competitors come gunning for him year after year, Jefferson, a 40-year-old diesel mechanic from Milton, says the biggest challenge isn’t competition—it’s keeping the pumpkin intact. Jefferson has earned the right to swagger. “I’d like somebody to try to beat me,” he says with a laugh. But there’s more to it than the glory. Jefferson likes the teamwork and camaraderie of seeing old friends. “It’s almost like Christmas.”

Frank Shade

Past President

Frank Shade, 61, of Lewes, sincerely believes that if one harnessed all the knowledge and energy put into designing punkin chunkin’ machines, all the world’s problems would be solved. That helps make him a perfect example of the Punkin Chunkin’ addiction. He first attended in 1992 as a county paramedic and quickly became involved. “What’s not to like about it?” says Shade, now the director of purchasing and fleet management for Sussex County. Besides the uniqueness of Punkin Chunkin’, it’s a chance to hang out with 70,000 of his newest best friends. As association president for eight years, he expanded the event from one day to three, worked to keep it in Delaware, and made sure it remained financially solvent. He stepped down as president last year, but still does “grunt work” for Bad to the Bone. “The centrifugals hold a very dear place in my heart,” says Shade. “Every year someone new comes gunning for us.”
 

Page 2: Jake Burton | World Record Chunk holder

 

Photograph by Jared CastaldiJake Burton

World Record Chunk holder

At 23, Jake Burton of Milton can’t remember a time when Punkin Chunkin’ wasn’t part of his life. His father was one of the founders, so he has been to every event since he was born. He helped Dad build machines, and at the age of 10, a year after he learned to weld, he built his own, an air cannon that he fired from the back of his father’s truck. For years he dominated the youth division, then moved up to the big boy bracket. There it took him three years—and some trial and error—to set the world record of 4,483 feet in 2008. Now a student of engineering, he’s known in chunkin’ circles around the world. A non-English speaking Japanese crew has filmed him for a show in Japan, and he’s often paid to take his cannon to other events on the East Coast. He’s versatile, too. He used his first cannon to dust the beetles in his garden. Besides knocking down some corn, it worked pretty well.
 

Page 3: Alicen Sharp and Monica Talbot | Betty Boob–Chunkin’ For The Cure

 

The Betty Boob team includes (from left) Alicen Sharp, Monica Talbot, Carlie Wahl, Rosie Campbell and Barbara Deklerow. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAlicen Sharp and Monica Talbot

Betty Boob—Chunkin’ For The Cure

Alicen Sharp and Monica Talbot attended Punkin Chunkin’ for years, but believed that, as spectators, they missed a good part of the experience, so they dove in. They wanted to help a friend, chunker Harry Lackhove a.k.a. Capt. Speed, 84, come out of retirement, and they wanted to do more than just hurl a pumpkin. Because Lackhove’s wife died from cancer, and the disease had touched many of their friends and family, they founded the Betty Boob—Chunkin’ For the Cure team. With a bright pink air cannon emblazoned with a dark-haired beauty strategically holding two pumpkins in front of her chest, Sharp and Talbot shot for a second place in the women’s division and raised $800 for Relay for Life in 2009. This year their goal is to win the competition and raise $10,000 for cancer research. “It’s definitely a group effort,” says Sharp, of Millsboro. The Betty team boasts more than 40 members. “We’re out there to have fun,” Sharp says. “But we’re out there to raise money for Relay for Life.”
 

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