GIRARD, Ill. -- Wayne Sennett drove 22 hours from Delaware to get here. He’s a bulldog of a man, 63 years old, a welder with a look suggesting a certain truth to his jacket’s embroidered words “Bad to the Bone.” He’ll tell you he lives in Ellendale Swamp, which is infamous as an 18th century refuge for blackguards, miscreants and other extraordinary creatures. The more Wayne Sennett talks, the more you believe he fits right in. Listen to what he said.
He said it after hauling his air cannon 958 miles. He said it after towing the great machine behind his welding truck from the swamp to the cornfields of central Illinois. When somebody told him the annual Punkin Chuckin contest in the village of Morton had been called off -- too much rain, the field a quagmire -- here’s what he said.
Well, we can’t print that.
He also said, “After that, I told the folks in Morton, ‘You want to see a grown man cry?’ I didn’t come all this way to sit on my [keister].”
He said nothing would stop a similar event in Delaware, home since 1986 to the sport’s world championships. “Neither rain nor snow nor blow stops us,” Sennett said. “Mud everywhere, we’d get every John Deere tractor around and pull them guns where they need to go.”
So the Morton folks got in touch with the Girard folks, who had staged their own punkin chuckin event the week before, and Wayne Sennett drove another couple hours to set up his “Sky Buster” cannon on the Girard firing grounds.
What did he expect of the day?
“Win,” he said.
“We didn’t come here for [scatological reference] and giggles,” he said, laughing if not giggling. “We come to play.”
Could Sky Buster defeat Morton’s giant Aludium Q-36 Pumpkin Modulator?
“Talk to me about 4 o’clock,” he said with a wink.
The idea of punkin chuckin is to see whose machine can throw a pumpkin the farthest. Though the sport’s origins have been lost in the mists of time, it’s safe to bet that a 13th-century boy, with the family catapult sitting idle, thought to himself, “Hmm, what would happen if I launched a pumpkin onto Mary Jo’s roof?” Most punkin chuckin competitions around America now include catapults, slingshots, centrifugals and trebuchets of medieval design. One expert’s summary: “Punkin chuckin -- where agriculture meets physics.”
Contest pumpkins can weigh no more than 10 pounds and be no larger than nine inches in diameter. The firmer they are, the better to withstand the air pressure that shoves them up the barrel. Those that disintegrate on launch are spoken of as “pumpkin soup” and “pumpkin pie in the sky.” A Girard aficionado, Courtney Klaus, remembered a good ol’ boy loading in a bowling ball, just to see, y’know. “It landed in a woman’s yard,” she said, “and that’s why we’re over here now.” Over here being a field that once was a city dump with the nearest house a mile and a half away, over the cornfield, beyond even the bean field.
To see the air cannons lined up at Girard was to imagine artillery guns trained on enemy aircraft. The biggest gun was Morton’s Q-36, its name borrowed from an old movie and TV cartoon series, “Marvin the Martian.” Marvin was obsessed with destroying Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the planet Earth. His weapon: the Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator.
Today’s real thing, the Q-36, weighs 18 tons. Its barrel is 110 feet long. It’s painted in the military’s dark olive green. “On the Interstates, the law gives us fewer problem if they think we’re military,” Matt Parker said. His company, Parker Fabrications, built the gun in 1996 for maybe $1,800 with community-wide donations of material and labor. As to what it might cost to replicate the gun now, Parker said, “Conservatively, $250,000.”
The Q-36's longest throw is 4,859 feet, 421 feet short of a mile. On such a throw, the pumpkin may leave the muzzle near the speed of sound -- about 750 mph -- and reach an altitude of 1,000 feet. Air compressed to 100 pounds per square inch and released through the barrel produces a rising whoosh that ends in ear-quivering thunder when the pumpkin rockets into the sky. The world-record throw is 5,545.43 feet, done by a Delaware gun, “Big 10 Inch.” Parker says that throw is at least partly the result of setting the gun on a rise above the landing field, in effect shooting downhill.
The Q-36 remains the only punkin chucker ever to appear on the David Letterman show. “Dave wanted us to shoot at New Jersey,“ Parker said. New Jersey’s shore is only about 2,000 feet across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s west side. “So we had to back up or we’d have hit buildings over there.”
On this day in Girard, the Q-36's first of three throws traveled 3,748.8 feet.
Two guns later, Sky Buster’s first sailed 3,537.6.
Q-36 cranked it up to 4,118.4.
Sky Buster’s second was 3,643.2.
When Q-36 reached 4,120.4 feet on its last shot, Sky Buster could only match its previous throw.
It was, by then, past 4 o’clock and time to talk with Wayne Sennett.
“Not a good day,” he said. He was taking down the gun, packing up, ready to get back on the road to Ellendale Swamp. As he hitched the Sky Buster to his welding truck, he said he had enjoyed the day despite it all.
“When that pumpkin gets its wings, I’m telling you, climbing and climbing, flying like it does, it’s like I’m riding it …”
An image: Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb in “Dr. Strangelove.” Like that.
“And I’m looking down from up there,” Sennett said, “and I’m seeing the fields and the railroad tracks and all the people down below. When I watch that pumpkin fly, I’m free.”
So it’s not the NFL and it’s not the World Series. It’s punkin chuckin. Still. Name another game that can turn a welder into a poet.