Going for the Gourd

Geeks make good at Aurora's pumpkin toss.

The good news was that the Pumpkin Satellite Project had just launched a one-gallon jug of water approximately twenty yards through the air -- not a winning distance, certainly, but respectable for an early simulation of what might happen if you put a pumpkin in its place. The bad news, and particularly vexing from an engineering standpoint, was that the milk jug was flung in the exact opposite direction of the designated landing field. It exploded just inches from a Mercury SUV parked in territory previously designated as safe, and a few feet short of Chambers Road, packed with mid-Saturday-morning bustle.

"Um, what's up with the negative fifty feet?" asks team member Andrea Sumption.

"We just weren't sure which direction we were supposed to be firing," replies Laurie Thompson. "It's not as bad as last night. Then we had a contact failure. The machine basically broke in half."

There was some pressure to make a successful repair: This is PSP's second year in the Pumpkin Toss, the most popular component of Aurora's annual Pumpkin Fest, and last year, the team, based loosely around the Thompson family of south Denver, had landed in second place after a hasty design-and-construction phase fueled by a sense of sober desperation.

"We used to drink together," Laurie explains. "But then we stopped. We had to find something to do, so..."

"It might not be a bad idea to start again," suggests Ken Thompson, who, Laurie points out, was the one figuratively and literally wearing the engineering pants: tan Dockers. "The rest of us just screw, beat and clamp," she says. "Except for Kirk. He's the gravity clamp."

The official competition is only moments away, so Ken gets to work on the minor alteration he insists will guarantee that the pumpkin is shot 180 degrees away from the previous effort.

Mark Votodian's Cub Scout Pack 650 is set up next door to the Pumpkin Satellite Project, whose repairs he eyes anxiously. "I'm a little nervous," he admits. "But I'm very confident of our own machine. I definitely think it will launch that way," he says, pointing away from the road and toward the field of play.

"Our troop got involved because there is a badge for engineering, in which the kids are specifically supposed to design a catapult," he continues. "But that was too easy. So we built the trebuchet instead."

"I just went on the Internet," explains Bruce Kraemer, chief engineer for the scouts. "I looked under 'nuclear weapons,' subcategory 'medieval.' It's easy to find."

The contest is no joke over at the launcher designed by employees of TDK Engineering. "We're software engineers in real life," says Kevin 'The Bruce' Klimczak, who's dressed in Scottish Highlander togs. "We design missile defense systems. This is a chance to go to the other side." Thanks to exhaustive computer modeling, TDK's machine has achieved maximum reliability. "Once we get locked onto a particular position, we're very repeatable," he notes.

But not very durable. On the third official toss of the competition, the team's trebuchet tips over backward and suffers catastrophic structural injury. "It snapped like toothpicks," says Jan Barglowski, another TDK designer. "It was cool."

Indeed, it is instructive to remember that mistakes do get made, even when the best of scientists gather. (See, for example, the Challenger disaster.) So it is understandable that no one could possibly anticipate the failure of the catapult arm joint on the Braveheart Brothers/Gateway Rotary team machine. Even so, the bloody head wound surprises just about everyone.

If there is something that the put-upon Columbine High School non-jocks need to know, it is this: Someday -- and sooner rather than later -- all of the popular, fit and attractive athletes now shoving you around are going to be overweight also-rans. While they struggle to maintain their self-confidence with blustery recollection, the engineers and the rest of you nerds shall inherit the earth, and the crowds shall form around you and observe your competitions of brains and humor and applaud you loudly.

And you will look them in the eye and say, "Now tell me: Would you rather have been able to throw a football fifty yards yesterday, or design a machine today that will propel a pumpkin four-fifths of a mile?"

"We are the same guys who used to be in the chess club and on the debate team in high school," confirms William Llewellin, a member of team NASA -- National Association of Squash Artillery. "But now we have big motorcycles and high-powered firearms. And all the guys who used to play football are large and slower-moving. Some have even moved up to construction foremen."

At the DeLaney Urban Farm this October Saturday, it is obvious who's really worth watching. While dozens of college football games rage across the country (University of Colorado loses again, and who really cares?), several hundred people gather on an Aurora field to celebrate the mechanical and the macho, mind-over-muscle division.

And they're rewarded with, well, squash propelled many, many feet. Yet as anyone who has constructed a potato gun, lighter-fluid-fueled tennis-ball cannon, giant slingshot or model rocket can tell you, these are extremely gratifying pursuits.

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