A Good Time with a Bad Idea

How will our alien overlords memorialize us, one day? Which single item will be on display in their Museum of the Milky Way to represent the former human race? Never mind your Space Shuttle, your iPad, your book, rubber tire, ink pen, or corkscrew. It will be something ingenious, wasteful, dangerous, pointless, and which both mimics and mocks our worst tendency, to make war. Surely it will be the Pumpkin Chucker.

It was a beautiful fall weekend, across the River from St. Louis, at Relleke Farms, which has been in the same family since the 19th-century. Relleke currently supplies regional, high-end supermarkets with produce such as sweet corn, but some of their land, near Horseshoe Lake, is used for an annual pumpkin patch and Halloween carnival.

Carol Relleke was driving around in a golf cart to check on the miniature coaster, the camel ride, the corn maze, the corn dog stands, and the picnic area, where a Willie Nelson tribute performer would soon be taking the stage. She could not even estimate the number of visitors on this sunny Sunday.

“I have two 10-acre lots filled with cars, I know that,” she said helpfully. They had opened the pumpkin patch the end of September, but it had been so hot they did not get many visitors. Now it was 70 degrees, and the sky the kind of blue that is lighter at the horizon and deeper overhead, closer to space.

Carol sat and looked at the Pumpkin Chucker, which is a compressed-air cannon with a barrel the length of a howitzer’s. The man running it was letting air pressure build in the big tank, which was once used for underground storage at a Shell refinery, where the Chucker’s builders worked. Carol said Bill and Don, “the two gentlemen” who built it to enter team competitions, brought it to the farm each Halloween for years. “For health reasons,” they had to stop competing, so Carol’s family bought it.

A little boy stood at the firing switch, eager and nervous. A large compressor, like those at highway construction sites, sat 25 yards away. The compressed air filled the big tank that had three flanges of different sizes welded to it, which served no purpose, and was rusty and painted crudely. It made the base of the cannon. The child had paid three tickets and chosen a pumpkin the size of his head.

The man running the Chucker threw it down the breach. There was no wadding, just all-thread rods to hold it in place. He built suspense with the crowd by explaining that with the 40-psi he was running, he could reach the tree line, 880 yards away. Bill and Don, he said, had used 60 psi, and at a 45-degree angle they could fire pumpkins a mile. The barrel could elevate but not swing to targets. The target today, for the kids, was a pile of junked cars supplied by a local salvage yard. After four days, he pointed out, they were already beat to hell.

The man stood on a pickle bucket and held his hand to his brow, as he looked out over the tall field of corn nearby, where a combine was harvesting. He made a striking figure, under an American flag and before the Chucker made of the discarded tank, a massive PVC pipe, a bunch of hoses and wires, a spare car battery, a seat from a Cessna, and two welded skids. He determined it was safe enough and roared, “Fire in the hole!”

The boy, who wore a “Don’t Mess With Texas” shirt and wraparound shades, smacked the red button. The Chucker made a blowing-spitting noise, and the pumpkin made a visible arc to the cars and exploded with a great thud. The crowd cheered. The boy ran back to his father, a bald giant in a cowboy hat and Superman shirt, and his mother, who wore colorful leather boots and a t-shirt that said books turn Muggles into wizards. All the little girls in kitty-cat headbands jigged with excitement, and the aliens looked down and made their plans.

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