Where no pumpkin has gone before

Catapult contest tosses science, fun together for Carroll pupils

November 11, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

With a glee that the average home project never sees, about two dozen dads in Sykesville raided back yards and basements this fall to build contraptions with this purpose: to hurl a pumpkin into the air and turn it into glop.

Ostensibly part of a science lesson for their children at Sykesville Middle School, the dads' machines were ready for action for the school's fourth annual "Punkin' Chunkin' " contest. Distance determined the winner, and the 1998 record of 80 feet was at stake.

Shortly before dusk Tuesday, pickup trucks bounced onto the school's athletic field, and the dads wrestled their unwieldy devices onto the starting line.

A slingshot made of landscape stones and giant springs sat next to a catapult made of sailboat winches and a pair of bluejeans. One girl brought a seesaw.

Liz Dover, an earth science teacher at the school, started the contest four years ago after seeing a national competition in Lewes, Del.

Dover organizes the contest to test her pupils' scientific know-how, but it usually tests parental resources and patience more, she said. She sets no cost limits and stresses that the devices be homemade.

But there are rules: The contraption must demonstrate the properties of a simple machine, must be freestanding, must be propelled by human power alone and may have no more than three pupils per team.

And bring your own pumpkin.

Wayne Tracey anchored daughter Brittany's machine with two 25-pound weights -- far too hefty for the 11-year-old.

"Who is launching this machine?" asked the referee.

"Probably me," said Tracey. "I'm afraid for her to touch it."

Each team was allowed two launches, although machine failure ruled out many a second try.

"Let her go," shouted the referee.

"I'm not ready," said 11-year-old Chloe Nichols, whose components were coming apart. "Daddy, help."

Dan Nichols, a contractor, pulled tape and wire off his truck and modified his daughter's faulty seesaw. Chloe's launch went 9 feet, but the effort snapped the machine's underpinning.

"We're done for," said Dad.

Ryan Bowman, 12, used garage door springs, landscape stones and a sawhorse. Chris Bolster, 12, used a plumbing cap to hold his pumpkin and thick, red grease to make his pulley slicker.

"It's OK, as long as you don't grease the pumpkin," said Chris.

Andrew Tucker, Nathaniel Baker and Brenton Skolaski, all 11, bought heavy-duty springs and nailed them to a thick slab of wood -- once a mailbox post (no one would say whose). They had test-launched basketballs before the contest.

"You use what you have," said Ray Murphy, whose wife Linda, a science teacher at the school, insisted that he lead a team. "After all, this is supposed to be a simple machine."

His slingshot-powered contraption was made of leftover deck wood, a rusty horseshoe, a saddle strap and surgical tubing, with a shaky stepladder as a brace. It fell apart after one launch but sent his pumpkin an impressive 45 feet.

The contest meant worthwhile family time in garages and back yards, parents said.

"Our son was so excited about this project," said Kim Shaw. "He worked on it for weeks and launched rocks to test it."

Kathy Pickett said the project really brought out the creativity in her son, Josh, and his teammates. Everything they used was a leftover, including the carved and rotting jack-o'-lantern. The boys experienced technical difficulty: The sticky pumpkin would not eject.

Zach Black, 13, said: "I think mine is the littlest and the simplest, but I had a great time making it. I used wood that I found in the Dumpster, and I think it's going to go 120 feet." It went 32.

When 12-year-old Ryan Gerow's system of colorful bungee cords and springs broke down after one launch, Dudley Gerow came to his son's rescue. The father was so familiar with the inner workings that he knew where to stand.

"No time for repairs," said the father, bracing the structure with his body. "We will hold it up for the second launch." It worked.

How long did it take to build Ryan's machine? "Too long," said his mother, Kathy Gerow. "A lot of our other fall projects we didn't do."

A contraption called The Punkin Blaster was the odds-on favorite from the beginning, and the team was intent on breaking the 1998 record.

A cool blue machine made of steel and wood, it had two 10-foot pieces of wood bolted onto a boat trailer. A sling at the top held a pumpkin.

For propulsion, the Blaster crew pulled back on a handle attached to long pieces of heavy-duty elastic.

With the release of the elastic, its handle was to hit the pumpkin, the pumpkin shoot out of its sling and -- glop.

"Can we hit the highway?" asked Brandon King, 11, as he eyed trucks passing on Route 32.

"Not intentionally," Glenn King answered.

The Kings and two of Brandon's schoolmates locked arms and gave a throaty "umphh" as they pulled the slingshot waaaayyyy back.

They held on for a few seconds then let the elastic fly.

The handle hit the pumpkin, the pumpkin shot out of its sling and -- an astonishing 389 feet later -- glop in the trees.

The highway -- and its drivers -- were spared. Barely.

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