Gourd to the Last Drop
By Bryan Wendell
Give your Scouts a vigorous weekend workout and teach them a thing or two about physics.
“Thirty minutes to go!” The warning sends four Cub Scouts wearing safety goggles and hard hats hustling to their places. One boy lugs an armful of orange ammunition, while another positions the firing pin.
In preparation to test their medieval-looking trebuchet, an overgrown slingshot, the youngsters stand back from their machine—the smallest of seven occupying the large field in southern New Jersey this Saturday morning.
Twelve-year-old Shane Bell yells, “Fire in the hole!” and tugs on the rope attached to the homemade wooden device.
Shane steadies himself and pulls again, even harder, and the mechanism springs to life. As the device’s weighted box falls, the attached arm swings around, dragging a rope and a 1½-pound pumpkin behind it. But instead of soaring forward toward the 900-foot-long stretch of farmland, the gourd flies into the air with all the lazy force of an infield pop fly.
Pack 634 faces more work over the next half-hour. But for all the seven teams gathered here for the NJ Hurl, the inaugural pumpkin chunkin’ event for Cub and Boy Scouts in this area, the two-fold purpose of the weekend competition isn’t just about winning. It’s about giving boys and leaders the opportunity to share a little physical activity and learn some basic lessons in physics.
The rules are simple. Teams of up to seven boys launch pumpkins from homemade catapults or trebuchets. The contest allows each team three official shots, but only the farthest one counts. Trophies go to the top three teams.
To even the odds, the two 15-foot-tall trebuchets will fling 4-pound pumpkins—slightly larger than a cantaloupe—and the five 5-foot-tall contraptions will launch 1½-pound, softball-size pumpkins.
“Five minutes to go!”
Oblivious to the notice, teams of Scouts huddle around their handiwork as adults give last-minute safety instructions. Shouts of “hard hats,” “move back,” and “take your time” rise above the din stirred up by nervous excitement. It’s mid-October, but the boys wear shorts and pack or troop T-shirts.
A dozen cars fill the grassy shoulder of a quiet, two-lane road that runs parallel to the field. The spectators, no doubt lured by the sight of seven large wooden objects in an otherwise empty field, stand in pickup beds and peer through the barbed-wire fence, shielding their eyes from the midday sun.
Inside the fence, about 100 parents, relatives, and spectators have gathered in a visitor section cordoned off with yellow caution tape. With a digital camera trained on her son’s trebuchet, one supportive mom smiles and wishes her boy good luck.
About five minutes later, the voice of event organizer and Troop 634 Scoutmaster Glenn Battschinger booms out of the PA speakers. Speaking into a wireless microphone, he thanks the crowd for coming—and for paying $5 each to enter. The fee goes to a good cause.
Participating units will split the money from the more than 500 visitors during the two-day event to send boys to summer camp. Battschinger says he hopes future events will bring in even more so that the packs and troops can grow even stronger. But the only way that can happen is through word of mouth, he tells the crowd.
“These teams put their hearts and souls into the machines,” he says. “Now, we hope you would do your part and spread the good word about pumpkin chunkin’.”
One by one, each team gets the go-ahead from Battschinger to fire its fruit-flinger. Pumpkins launched by the larger trebuchets sail more than 400 feet on their first attempts, smashing into a dozen pieces on impact and drawing cheers from almost every teenage boy. This doesn’t surprise Bill Thomas, Scoutmaster of Troop 224 in Hyattsville, Md.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm from teenage boys to throw things,” he explains.
Battschinger then approaches the small device built by Pack 634 and watches the boys’ preparations with pointed concern. His son, Gregory, is on this team. After a failed practice shot and some adjustments, the boys are ready to try for a solid distance. Taking their places, they look uneasy but hopeful as they count down from three and shout, “Fire in the hole!”
The machine operates smoothly enough but for some reason misfires, sending the pumpkin in the wrong direction. It lands behind the machine. “I’ll measure that one,” Battschinger says with thinly veiled sarcasm. “It’s minus-6 feet.”
Next down the line is Pack 87. Unlike its neighbor, this trebuchet has been a model of consistency during each practice shot. Bill Fausey, whose son is in this group, attributes this to his concern for safety.
“Our machine shows how you should go through life,” he says. “Always anticipate the results you want.”
That suggests Fausey and his team must have anticipated sending their 1½-pounder a long way. Their first shot lands 343 feet out in the field, and their next two official shots land within 15 feet of the first one.
Meanwhile, Troop 2002 Scoutmaster Mike Palladino eyes his team’s creation, which was built a week before the competition and designed during weekly troop meetings. Unlike its competitors, Troop 2002 uses a torsion catapult and not a trebuchet. The apparatus has no counterweight; instead, the firing arm is weaved into a rope that has been tightly wound around a pole. The tension of the rope, when the arm is cocked and released, creates enough force to launch the pumpkin.
But “Mister Twister,” as the catapult is called, only manages a disappointing 116 feet—much shorter than most of the team’s practice attempts. Palladino asks the boys to diagnose the problem, and it’s back to the drawing board.
AFTER SEVERAL MORE FAILED test runs around lunchtime, Pack 634 realizes that the pumpkin isn’t rolling smoothly through the PVC pipe chute. On discovering this, Gregory futilely tries to fix it by making several adjustments to the burlap sack that holds the pumpkin. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he rushes to seek out his dad.
Back at Troop 2002, Palladino’s group determines that the throwing arm, a thin wooden stick that resembles a broom handle, might be too weak. On cue, Palladino finds a new arm, a “strong and cheap” wheelbarrow handle painted a farmhouse red. The boys install the new component and strain to tighten the rope.
After burning off some energy running around in the farm’s corn maze, the boys return to their chunkin’ chores for the 2 p.m. round of competition. The crowd thickens to about 300, this time joined by the media. Two newspaper reporters gather quotes, while a cameraman from WMGM-TV in Atlantic City opens the legs of his tripod and trains his camera on the teams.
Before giving the go-ahead for the first team to fire, Battschinger takes a moment to address the afternoon crowd. “These guys got together to use boy leadership to run their teams, and we’re proud of them,” he says. “The great part is that anyone can build one of these with some scrap lying around their garage.”
As Battschinger approaches Pack 634, the boys look anxious. After all, their last attempt went just six feet—in the wrong direction. But when Battschinger gives them a nod, they move into position. The boys pull the safety pin on their trebuchet, the weighted box falls, and the arm swings forward. This time, the pumpkin stays in the burlap sack as it swings around. An audible sigh of relief comes from the group after the tiny machine hurls its pumpkin 111 feet. With a little help from Dad, the team has hit on an idea that flies—literally.
And then it’s Palladino and Troop 2002’s turn. The red throwing arm looks out of place on the sand-colored machine, but when the catapult is fired, a scarlet blur whooshes through the air, and the cord whips behind it. The team’s improvements pay off; the pumpkin flies 411 feet—more than three times farther than the first try.
The teams’ ranks don’t change during Sunday’s final round. Troop 634—the big brother of Pack 634—emerges as the top Scout team with a 480-foot hurl from its 15-foot-tall trebuchet. In the smaller-device division, Troop 2002’s torsion catapult, “Mister Twister,” takes top honors. But even the teams that have missed out on a trophy can’t complain.
Troop 224 of Hyattsville, Md., finishes fourth but receives something that’s even more significant, says Scoutmaster Bill Thomas. “Events like this build a lot of enthusiasm for other troop activities,” he says. “The troop has grown through increased activities like this one.”
Bryan Wendell is Scouting magazine's associate editor.
The inaugural event went so well that Glenn Battschinger and his team will stage it again this year. The second NJ Hurl is scheduled for Oct. 10-11 in Harbor City, N.J. If your unit is interested, get details at www.njhurl.com.