Pumpkin Chunkin
Scout Master Glenn Battschinger readies the catapult Saturday as his scouts of Troop 177, Egg Harbor Township, look on during the NJ Hurl Association pumpkin hurling contest at Butterhof's Shady Brook in Mullica Township. Anthony Smedile

MULLICA TOWNSHIP - "It blows your mind," said Kathleen Bettschinger, "what people do in their spare time."

The area west of the Garden State Parkway may well be uncharted territory for many tourists to our area, conditioned as they are to simply blasting through it on the way to Atlantic City or Wildwood, but anyone who does venture into the woods and farms may be rewarded with a sight you can't see on a beach or in a nightclub - monstrous contraptions hurling pumpkins into space.

Beat that, Dusk!

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Bettschinger, of Hamilton Township, was at Butterhof's Shady Brook Farm on Saturday to watch her son and grandson participate in this year's NJ Hurl, more commonly known as "Punkin Chunkin."

Five teams, many wearing orange T-shirts proclaiming, "I hurled at Butterhof's," arrayed their squash-slinging machines in a row facing a large open field with the White Horse Pike beyond.

Most of the teams consisted of Boy Scout troops from across New Jersey, including Troop 144 from Egg Harbor Township and Cub Scout Pack 634 of Galloway Township, each working hard on their built-from-scratch, mostly wooden catapulting machines, or trebuchets.

But one team stood above the others. Literally.

The Gaulbusters - which includes Glen Bettschinger, of Galloway Township and Fort Bragg, N.C., and Dennis Wigglesworth, of Estell Manor - were proudly encamped around Alesia, a gigantic pumpkin-hurling trebuchet that made the Cub Scouts' device next to it look like a pop gun.

Both names - the team's and their pet's - are a tribute to the Romans, who invaded ancient France - formerly called Gaul - in the 50s B.C., bringing with them massive trebuchets resembling the ones at Butterhof's. Alesia was a Gallic city that felt the full wrath of Rome and its weapons of moderate destruction.

"This one, we haven't weighed," Glen Bettschinger said, "but it's over five tons. It's all scrap steel. To tow it, we had to use an Army two-and-a-half-ton truck."

To get it on the truck, the device had to be hoisted with a crane, Bettschinger said - and the hurling machine for his son's team was not that much smaller.

"It's a 9,000-pound, solid oak and steel trebuchet," he said. "It doesn't have a name. We just call it The Big Trebuchet."

Built for a science-fair project - although it was so big and dangerous it was not allowed inside the school - The Big Trebuchet has been donated to Butterhof's, lest anyone dare move it again.

Glen and his son Gregory, with Troop 177, prepared the machine for a test hurl in between regulation hurls. Trebuchets, "The Atomic Bomb of the Middle Ages," according to Trebuchet.com, use counterweights, usually steel plates, to create leverage in order to fling things - in Alesia's case, the occasional bowling ball - at imaginary savage Frenchmen.

At The Big Trebuchet, Gregory Bettschinger placed a pumpkin in a sling at the end of an arm before Brandon Justis pulled the lanyard - dropping the counterweight and pushing the arm backward. As the weight continued to move, it started to jerk the arm forward - and goodbye, pumpkin.

"That was a pretty good shot," said Gregory. "We used to have a different arm, and it would only go about 400 feet. Now we have a new arm, and it puts it about 600 to 700 feet out. It's a big difference."

That was nothing for Alesia. Glen Bettschinger said the machine was built to go after the world record of 2,000 feet for an 8-pound pumpkin - only for the old record holders to go ahead and send another pumpkin 3,090 feet. If Alesia operated at full capacity Saturday, drivers on the Pike could have seen orange missiles hurtling above their cars - if they were lucky.

"Maybe if they'd hit a car, they'd get more points," Jane Ditmars said.

Ditmars, visiting from Burlington County, saw a listing for the NJ Hurl in a magazine and had to see it for herself. What did she think of the sheer power arrayed before her?

"This is so cute!" she said.

Dick Palladino, meanwhile, put the competition in a more martial light.

"It's kind of like in the old days of castles," said the Barnegat Light resident, cheering on his son and grandson from Troop 2002 from Mercer County. "Our son is an engineer, and obviously he enjoys this."

Ed and Kathleen Bettschinger, however, came out of a sense of duty.

"You don't know how hard he works on those things," Ed said of his son, Glen, who commutes back and forth from Fort Bragg to further fine-tune the machine.

"Oh my God, it's so beautiful," Kathleen added. "I've been so impressed since the first day I saw it."

The final results, according to pumpkinmaster Nancy Maslowas, were judged by the best of three shots. Minus the troop from Warren County, whose machine totally conked out - "Maybe we should call ourselves 'Team Keep Trying,'" scout leader Jean Thayer said - Cub Scout Pack 634 came in fourth with 69 feet, Troop 2002 third with 98 feet, Troop 177 second at 674 feet, and the mighty Alesia first at 763 feet.

But NJ Hurl, the Bettschingers said, is nothing compared with the nationals in Delaware in November.

"It's mind-boggling," Kathleen said. "It must be a row a mile long. There are machines so big they're working off of a crane. It's something for a man to play with - his whole adult life."

E-mail Steven Lemongello:

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