Opinion | Flying, falling pumpkins: A perfect pandemic pick-me-up

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On Saturday starting at noon, a few dozen pumpkins were sent flying several hundred feet down the field at the Monroe County fairgrounds.

The grass expanse, littered with shards of busted orange gourds, marked the return of Pumpkin Launch, hosted by the city of Bloomington’s parks and recreation department.

Four teams competed on Saturday—three with trebuchet-style launchers and a fourth with a sling-shot powered device.

The long-running event was rained out last year. Saturday’s skies started off overcast, but rain was never a threat. And by early afternoon, the sun had started to nudge the temperature upward from 50 F degrees. The wind was blowing out of the northeast at around 10 mph, so it was a brisk but still pleasant day.

The mark of the COVID-19 pandemic on this year’s event was clear. Orange pumpkin-shaped social distancing “circles”—complete with a green stem—were painted out in the spectator area to keep groups of people spread out. Instructions from the event staff were clear: If you go outside your group’s pumpkin circle, make sure you’re wearing a mask.

The number of cars was limited to 75 to keep the crowd size down.

Scoring for the day’s effort was strictly objective.

Distances—from the pumpkin launchers to the point of impact and from there to the targets—were measured with a GPS device. An old-fashioned measuring wheel was pressed into service when the more modern gadget fritzed out briefly.

In the day’s earlier of the two sessions, the first effort from Tetanus Express measured out at 903 feet, the longest launch for that round.

Also, objectively scored, Pumpkin Launch was great fun.

The parks and recreation staff who put the event together, which included community coordinators Sarah Owen and Bill Ream, delivered a couple of hours of pure delight and refreshing distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part of the fun included dropping pumpkins from the bucket of the city’s 65-foot tall urban forestry bucket truck.

For geeks, Team Fahrfunflinger was dosing out morsels of physics facts like the optimum pumpkin weight—five pounds. For every pound heavier than that, they lose about 100 feet in distance. White pumpkins are denser than their orange brothers, which means they fly farther. Their smaller size for the same weight gives them a better aerodynamic profile.

The big white tube that is the core element of Fahrfunflinger’s launcher is powered with surgical tubing. It’s basically a slingshot that blasts out the end of a tube. Saturday’s 50-degree temperatures were not optimal for the dynamics of surgical tubing. Warmer is better.

The basic design used by the other three teams for their pumpkin launchers was a trebuchet—a catapult that uses a counterweight to swing a long arm with an attached sling that carries the pumpkin payload.

Creativity in trebuchet design could be found in something as mundane as the choice of counterweight. For their trebuchet counterweight, Boy Scout Troop 462, hosted by Nativity parish on the southeast side of Indianapolis, used some concrete slabs salvaged from a renovation project at the church. In their previous life, the chunks of concrete served as a foundation for the altar. And that helps to explain the name of the scouts’ pumpkin launching machine: The Fist of God.

Pumpkin Launch was a kid-friendly affair. Plastic spoons, rubber bands, and tongue depressors were available to craft together miniature catapults. From the Indy area, Pete Lerzak, with his two sons, Henry and James, were down visiting family. The tykes proved that the little launchers worked, using a piece of white candy.

The lunchtime launching meant that parks and rec staff had arranged for food trucks to be on hand—JD’s Taste Of Chicago and Pili’s Party Taco.

A Bloomington-based band, The Long Seasons, performed several of their original tunes and some covers during the down time between launches.

The Long Seasons play a sort of alt-country style of music. A sampling of lyrics: “In and out of bed, biscuits and gravy, sleep like a stone after a bottle of whiskey.” Saturday’s edition of the band featured Ryan Payton, Andy Norman and Salem Willard.

The Long Seasons wrapped up their first set with a cover of the song “Fallin’ and Flyin’” recorded by Jeff Bridges for the 2009 film “Crazy Heart.” It’s hard to know for sure what a pumpkin feels like, when it has been launched from a trebuchet, but the song lyrics tell us, “It’s funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while.”

The Tetanus Express team gave the crowd some unintended entertainment for one round, when their trebuchet initially balked, but wound up flinging its pumpkin in the opposite direction.

As the orange orb arced southward towards Airport Road, the hilarious moment turned heart-stopping, when the potential of a pumpkin smashing into a passing car’s windshield became apparent. It was a close call. The pumpkin landed at the edge of the road, just inches behind the car’s rear tire.

Who would have been liable for damages? Part of the answer can probably be found in the contract signed between Monroe County, which owns the fairgrounds, and the city of Bloomington, which hosted the event. The $750 lease was approved by the board of park commissioners at its Sept. 22 meeting. (Did you think you could get to the end of a Square Beacon story without finding a mention of a government meeting?)

The bottom line on Saturday’s afternoon at the fairground: I had loads of fun. And I am looking forward to a pandemic-free Pumpkin Launch next year.

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