In their quest for the world’s heavyweight champion, some pumpkin growers
will do almost anything.
By Michael Vitez:
Don Black lives a four-room house in upstate New York, only a few miles from the Canadian border. To say his House is a bachelor pad is to be polite. Don’s walls are bare – except for a few world-champion pumpkin plaques. Don used to have many more, but he burned them in outrage last year. Don’s laundry is heaped in piles all over the floor. He has two dressers, but all the drawers are filled with 300 baby food jars containing pumpkin seeds. These drawers are the home of what Don claims is the world’s only pumpkin seed museum. Why doesn’t he keep his clothes in the drawers?
“Then where would I put my seeds?” he asks.
To earn a living, Don laces bedroom slippers together in a factory about 21 miles away. On a good day, when Led Zeppelin pumps through his headphones, he can lace 108 pairs in eight hours. He gets paid by the piece, and Don says he makes “$16,000 a year if I’m lucky.”
Don leaves for work at 5:30 a.m., but before he goes, as well as two or three times every night he trudges out behind his house to the pumpkin patch – a patch so neat, so loved, its hard to believe it is tended by the same man. The earth is as dark and moist as devil’s food cake. Don comes out to check for intruders – woodchucks, deer, teenagers or, the most insidious, saboteurs.
Don, 38, is not paranoid. He is practical. Could he afford it, he might try what Norm Craven, his nemesis across the Canadian border, has installed in his patch – sensors and cameras.
“People don’t want anyone to grow a bigger pumpkin,” Craven said.
“No matter what.”
Don Black and Norm Craven, along with about 5,000 competitive growers, have been trying to grow what was once considered impossible, unthinkable, the four-minute mile of pumpkindom: a 1,000-pounder.
It will be “like a moon landing,” says Ray Waterman, president of one of three feuding pumpkin organizations. Wrote Tom Norlin in the spring issue of the Midwestern Pumpkin Growers newsletter “The winner will be remembered and written about for generations.”
Last year, Herman Bax of Brockville, Ontario, grew a 990-pound pumpkin, the largest in history. Some credited the seed. Others the weather. Herman praised his septic bed, over which he grew his pumpkin. Herman’s neighbor and friend, Barry Dejong, grew the second largest in history – 945.5 pounds. Together they split $28,000 in prize money – not bad for two 30-year-old guys who help make Tide soap in a Procter & Gamble factory.
Herman sold his pumpkin to a restaurant outside San Francisco that hosts an annual pumpkin festival. Two Las Vegas casinos bid for Barry’s pumpkin. The winner, the Excalibur, flew Barry, his pumpkin and his wife out to Vegas for a week and greeted Barry and his wife with a stretch limo. The pumpkin went on display in the casino lobby wearing a crown, a security guard by its side round the clock. Two days before Halloween, the pumpkin was trucked to Hollywood, where a professional pumpkin carver waited to sculpt the world’s largest jack-o-lantern on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. But at the last moment, Leno was a no-go. “Because the pumpkin had spent 10 days under the spotlight,” lamented Barry, “it had started to get soupy inside.” Barry’s champion pumpkin ended its charmed life in a Hollywood dumpster.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume once wrote that avarice and ambition
drive all men. As these twin desires drive the Trumps and Madonnas and
Gingriches and Iacoccas, they also motivate the Pumpkin People. On a smaller
scale for sure, but with no less ferocity. These men and few women come from
all walks of life. They are firefighters and farmers, park rangers and
stockbrokers, engineers and appliance salesmen. Like all backyard gardeners,
they start out growing giant pumpkins for fun. But soon these innocent
gardeners quickly submit to the raw power of the pumpkin.
In just 70 days, a championship pumpkin swells from the size of a marble to
the size of a kitchen stove, and is about as shapely. But no pumpkin grower
cares about looks. “Pounds talk, everything else walks,” barks
Waterman. “This ain’t a damn beauty contest.”
During July and August an Atlantic Giant pumpkin can gain 30 pounds a day.
“There’s nothing that grows faster than a giant pumpkin,” says Ron
Nelson, a Washington state grower. He should know. His pumpkin was well over
900 pounds last year when it literally exploded just nine days before the
international weigh-off. “It’s shell simply couldn’t stand the
stress,” said Hugh Wiberg, a New England grower. “God never intended
pumpkins to be pushed to such limits.” Although Nelson says he handled the
tragedy well, other growers say he was bereft. “He didn’t sleep for two
nights,” said Wiberg.
These pumpkins create their own gravity, cast their own spell. Soon the act
of growing is no longer enough. “I push and push,” says Leonard
Stellpflug, a New York state grower. “I go for broke. I either want the
world championship or nothing.” Stellpflug walks around with divining rods
– coat hangers inside the shells of Bic pens – searching for “water
domes” and “energy fields.” Wayne Hackney of Connecticut, after
seeking advice from photobiologists at a GTE testing laboratory, installed
1,000-watt lights in his patch and shined them all night, “It looked like
Yankee Stadium,” he said. He stopped after two years, but only because
somebody stole them.
Holland in Washington state uses solar panels to raise the temperature of
his irrigation water from 50 to 80 degrees so his pumpkin plants won’t
Don Black, founder and curator of the pumpkin seed museum, ran his well dry
this summer watering his pumpkins. So then he ran a hose 300 feet from his
brother’s well. And he showered at his sister’s house.
And Norm Craven? He installed those infrared cameras and sensors last year
after his involvement in what many consider the most heinous act in the history
of pumpkin growing. He felt such hostility from other growers this year that he
concentrated on cabbages instead.
Pumpkin people pine to be the first to break 1,000 pounds, to get their
names in the Guinness Book of Records, to strut on Regis and Kathy Lee. They
are local celebrities, featured in newspapers and on television around the
world. Their phones ring with calls from awestruck growers less evolved on the
pumpkin chain. They work relentlessly, and while they won’t kill their rivals
to succeed, some of them will bicker, whine, hate, lie and cheat.
They are as American as, well, pumpkin pie.
Tony Ciliberto had a special feeling this spring as he prepared his fields
outside Wilkes Barre with 4,000 pounds of manure. “My personal gut feeling
is someone will hit the 1,000-pound mark this year,” he predicted back on
May 16. And of course Tony hoped he would be the one.
Tony, 41, is a big man at 6-foot-4, 240, a bricklayer, with hands as large
and leathery as catcher’s mitts. Tony would love to grow pumpkins on a farm in
Ontario, with smooth soil and a summer sun that doesn’t set until after 10 p.m.
But he comes from this comer of Pennsylvania, and so does his wife. This is
where his roots are planted. And it is here, in Bear Creek, Pa., on the side of
a rocky Pocono Mountain foothill, that he has carved out his pumpkin patch.
Perhaps no grower in America has met with more natural adversity, more bad
luck, than Tony Ciliberto.
In those first years, his patch was so steep, pumpkins would snap off the
vine overnight and roll down the Mountainside. Over the years, Tony has graded
the property with uncounted truckloads of dirt and manure, and bordered his
patch with railroad ties. He has turned this patch into the puffiest, richest,
softest and most productive mountainside of dirt in Pennsylvania. His biggest
pumpkin before this summer was 734 pounds, a state record, but nothing compared
to what Tony knew he was capable of. Tony knew, always, the secret of a big
pumpkin was choosing the right seed and praying for the right weather. What he
wanted more than anything was sunlight. Day after day of brilliant sun. July
and August are always getting cloudy up his way. A couple of years ago, he
chopped down a dozen oak trees to give his pumpkin plants another 30 minutes of
daylight. Give me sun, he would say every year. Give me sun.
All winter Tony considered which seeds to plant. This is the biggest
decision any grower makes. He settled on a seed from Mark Woodward’s
511-pounder, the mother of Herman Bax’s 990. He also chose a seed from Norm
Craven’s 836, and seeds from three Joel Holland pumpkins: the 827, 722 and 792.
“I’m not much of a gambler,” Tony said. “I’m not trying anything
new. No seeds from last year’s pumpkins. I know enough growers and I’ve traded
enough seeds. I have the seeds that produced all of last year’s big pumpkins.
I’m planting seeds that have already proven themselves.”
On April 24, to speed germination, he took his wife’s emery board and gently
filed the edges off his five chosen seeds, as if he were giving a pedicure to a
Hollywood starlet. Pumpkin season had begun. Tony put his seeds in small pots
with soil that had been treated with fungicide and warmed under lights in his
den. After three days, the seeds had germinated. Seedlings began to emerge like
claws from a crab. On May 7, Tony transplanted five precocious plants – each
only four inches tall, but full of promise – into his patch. Immediately Tony
covered each plant with homemade greenhouses the size of doghouses. Like an
celebrity today, a giant pumpkin is rarely left unprotected.
Over the next several weeks, Tony fertilized heavily with Miracle-Grow – he
buys it in 12-1/2 pound boxes. He sprayed heavy doses of calcium nitrate, in
the form of deodorized fish emulsion. “It’s really just fermented fish
juice,” he explained. “It smells just awful, but they say it’s good
for the plants.” He loved to pour on Garden’s Alive liquid kelp (seaweed)
because “it’s loaded with trace elements – copper, zinc, magnesium, all
things a growing pumpkin needs.” He even fertilized with modest doses of
Epsom salts, not for sore feet, but close: for sore bottoms. Later in the
summer, a pumpkin can suffer soft spots where it rests on the ground, soft
spots that can lead to leaks and certain disqualification, if not death.
Tony was usually out watering before dawn, and back again after work until
dark. He waged organic and chemical warfare against cucumber beetles that ate
his leaves, squash vine borers that mangled his vines. By late June, Tony
sprinkled Snarol — snail- and slug-killer pellets — out in his patch. And on
occasion, he has dropped a woodchuck with a rifle, when the varmint tunneled
under the windbreak that surrounded his patch. We are talking giant pumpkins.
Ciliberto shoots to kill.
So what is a pumpkin, anyway? A pumpkin is not a cucumber, and it’s not a
melon (although the word pumpkin comes from the Greek pepon meaning “large
melon”) and it’s not a summer squash, although it belongs to the same
botanical family. Giant pumpkins, Cucurbita maxima, are in the same genus as
winter squash and gourds. Giant pumpkins and squash are essentially the same in
size and shape. In fact, you can plant two seeds from the same giant pumpkin,
and one might give you a green monster, while the other gives you a
pumpkin-colored one. Cut them open, and they look identical on the inside. But
don’t think they are equal. Oh, no, they are not.
The competitive pumpkin world discriminates viciously on the basis of color.
A championship pumpkin is often a warted, lumpy, hunchback of a blob that is
absolutely tasteless and useless. But it must be yellow or orange, although now
“cream”-colored pumpkins are acceptable at weighoffs. A squash is
green or gray. A pumpkin is what turns heads and brings in the most prize
money. After all, Linus doesn’t hang out on Halloween night waiting for the
Which brings us to a second question. Why do people love pumpkins? Pumpkin
stories and lore go back, it seems, to the beginning of time. Cinderella’s
carriage came from a pumpkin. Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater had a wife and couldn’t
keep her. Colonial Americans consumed so much pumpkin they made up a rhyme: We
have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon; fit was not for pumpkins, we
would be undoon. And Whittaker Chambers hid his microfilm of documents Alger
Efiss gave to the communists inside his pumpkin. Pumpkins have been used in
stews and soups and beer and pies, and on every doorstep in America this week
sits a jack-o’-lantern. Perhaps most astonishing., Alan Hirsch, a maverick
scientist in Chicago, recently found that no aroma sexually aroused men more
than a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie. Hirsch attributes this to Freud
and Oedipus, etc. Howard Dill – whose biography is titled The Pumpkin King –
has a simpler answer: “There’s always something about a giant pumpkin that
had the power to make people happy.”
In the summer of 1993, Don Black grew and 884-pound pumpkin, setting a world
record. Days before the Oct. 1 weigh-off, Don loaded his pumpkin into his
pickup, and then he drove 22 hours straight to Nova Scotia, to be with Howard
Dill, a dairy farmer in Windsor, Nova Scotia, began growing pumpkins in the
late 1950s and spent the better part of 20 years breeding them for size.
Ultimately, Dill created a new variety – Dill’s Atlantic Giant. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture awarded Dill plant variety protection, similar to a
patent, and Dill started selling his seeds around the world. Dill won four
consecutive world championships, 1979 through 1982, and his seeds or their
descendants have been responsible for virtually every world champion in the
last 20 years.
Black had promised himself that if he ever grew a contender, “I would
take it back to its birthplace.” He kept his promise. “When I pulled
up his driveway,” Black recalled, “and Howard come out and saw my
pumpkin, he put his hand on his heart: `Oh my gosh. I never thought they could
get that big.'”
The decision to drive to Nova Scotia for Don Black was an emotional one. But
it was also a political one. The pumpkin world was plunging into civil war, and
Don Black had to choose sides.
The fact is, we live in an are of Giant Veggies, in which contests are held
and prizes awarded for the largest carrot, sunflower and watermelon, not to
mention the longest zucchini (104 inches!). Ray Waterman, 45, a farmer and
restaurant owner in Collins, N.Y., near Buffalo, was the visionary. It was he
who first conceived a worldwide weigh- off – giant pumpkins, of course, would
be the main event. Waterman called Dill in 1982 after reading about him and
presented his grand idea. “I envisioned an Olympics of Gardening,”
Waterman recalled. “The average grower was sick of growing the same old
beans, radishes and cucumbers in his garden. People need a challenge.”
So Waterman and Dill created the World Pumpkin Confederation. Dill gave the
organization credibility, but Waterman gave it the gas. Over the next several
years, the WPC grew and grew, with 12 weigh-off sites, primarily in North
America. On the first Saturday in October, growers would bring their giant
pumpkins or squash or rutabagas to weigh-offs at WPC sites, and the winners
would collect prize money, usually a few hundred dollars. Waterman printed
newsletters and sent out hundreds of press releases with Howard Dill’s picture,
and got tremendous media attention. When another world record was set, Waterman
got the growers name in the Guinness Book of Records.
But even from the beginning, peace did not prevail in pumpkin land. Out on
the West Coast, a rival pumpkin organization, the International Pumpkin
Association, had taken root. Terry Pimsleur, a publicist who represents a
pumpkin festival near San Francisco, was its leader. Pimsleur, Waterman and
Dill initially talked about merging. They met at Waterman’s restaurant in 1983
and egos collided. Pimsleur said Waterman “tried to keep me out of all the
pictures.” Waterman says Pimsleur “tried to take over.” Neither
had a kind word for the other – and still doesn’t. “Don’t believe anything
Waterman tells you,” Pimsleur says.
And disenchantment with Waterman began to spread. By 1993, relations were so
bad that four of the largest WPC weigh-offs – in Topsfield, Mass.; Windsor,
Nova Scotia; Anamosa, Iowa; and Nuttree, Calif. – abandoned Waterman and the
WPC and created a third international pumpkin organization, the Great Pumpkin
Commonwealth. Dill and Wiberg led the revolt. “Boxing has three different
champions,” said Wiberg. “So do we.”
Waterman, sitting in his restaurant recently, eating a slab of pumpkin pie,
seethed over the situation. “I made it happen,” he said of the
success of the pumpkin weigh-off. “I made the damn happen.” He
accused other growers of jealousy, of spreading lies and gossip about him, of
using their rival newsletters for “yellow journalism – or, in this case,
“They want to take the credibility of the World Pumpkin Confederation
and put it to their own use,” he said, then vowed: “I won’t let that
In 1994, however, the top 10 pumpkins in the world weighed off at Great
Pumpkin Commonwealth sites. Nothing fueled this exodus from the World Pumpkin
Confederation more than what Ray Waterman did to Donald Black and his 884-pound
pumpkin in the fall of 1993.
On July 3, Tony Ciliberto rose at 5 a.m. and started his drip lines, hoses
rounding his five giant pumpkin plants. This was a critical day. This morning
he would pollinate his pumpkins. His plants were now full grown, vines as thick
as pipes, leaves larger than toilet seats. The plants were strong and green and
healthy and ready to begin the second half of the season, actually growing the
Growers hand-pollinate for one primary reason. They want to mate a Michael
Jackson with a Lisa Marie Presley, a male blossom from a Bax 990 with a female
from a Dejong 945.5. Such hopeful pollination won’t make this year’s pumpkin
any bigger, but the next generation of seeds could be Herculean. The single
best explanation for the dramatic rise in pumpkin size over the last few years
is the superior seed. In 1984, a 500-pounder was still a dream. Now experienced
growers consider a 500-pounder a failure.
Each pumpkin plant produces male and female flowers. The female flower is
fertile for only six hours. If the bees or the growers, don’t come calling,
that flower will produce no pumpkin. Growers like Ciliberto inspect their
patches each night beginning in late June, and on into early July, looking for
female flowers that seem ready to open the next morning. Then they arrive
before dawn, ahead of the bees.
Ciliberto, on his hands and knees, pulled back the giant leaves of the Mark
Woodward 511 plant, reached down and gingerly snapped off one male blossom, and
then another, like Romeo picking flowers for Juliet. Like most champions
growers, Tony never actually sets foot in his patch. He stands or kneels on
small pieces of wood, the size of cafeteria trays, to avoid compacting the
dirt. To move about, he picks up the board behind him and places it in front of
him. Tony steered a path out of the 51 1 plant and over to the open flower on
the Joel Holland 827.
He kneeled again, peeled off the petals of the male – the same way a
romantic would play “she loves me, she loves me not” – and held only
a long, firm stamen in his hand. Little particles of pollen covered the stamen
like a fine yellow dust. Ciliberto reached in and robustly painted the female
pistil with the stamen, spreading the pollen all around. This was hardly a
delicate gesture. Ciliberto looked like a backyard barbecuer swabbing his
chicken with sauce. He repeated the process with another stamen, just for good
Ciliberto pollinated several flowers that morning. And he would again for
several mornings to come, pollinating several female flowers on each plant.
Then he would watch. Carefully. At the base of every female blossom is a small
pumpkin, about the size of a lemon drop. Once the flower has been pollinated,
this pumpkin will grow. Swell. In the coming weeks, Tony Ciliberto would
coldly, repeatedly, make life-and-death choices – choosing just one pumpkin per
plant to grow. The others get aborted with his pocket knife. Cut and heaved
into the compost pile. If he wants to win, there’s no other way.
In that fall of 1993, Don Black weighed his champion pumpkin on a tarp. Most
weigh-off sites use a tarp. It’s a faster and safer way to lift pumpkins on and
off the scales. After they weigh the pumpkin, officials weigh the tarp. Don
Black’s pumpkin weighed 890 with the tarp. The tarp weighed 6 pounds. A weight
of 884 was verified by two government agricultural experts who served as
judges, and a representative of the Toledo Scale Co., present at the Great
Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-off in Nova Scotia.
Don Black had set the record. Or had he?
Twelve hundred miles away, on the shores of Lake Huron, in Port Elgin,
Ontario, on that very same afternoon, Norm Craven’s pumpkin was weighed and
recorded at 836 pounds, the second largest pumpkin after Don Black’s. Port
Elgin is a World Pumpkin Confederation site, under the auspices of Ray
Waterman. Port Elgin’s sponsors offered their winner a new pickup truck, and
Craven drove home a happy man. A few days later, Craven would drive that new
pickup to New York City and appear on Regis and Kathie Lee with his 836-pound
This didn’t bother Black. Because he knew in the next edition of the
Guinness Book of Records, to be published in September 1994, he would be listed
as the world record holder. His name would be there, Donald Black, in all 1.3
million copies. But when the book came out, Don Black couldn’t believe his
eyes. He saw Norm Craven’s name instead of his. There was no mention of Don
Black or his 884-pounder. Nothing. Not a word. Ray Waterman was responsible for
this. Don Black went home and took every WPC plaque he had ever won, threw them
all into a metal barrel in his backyard, and burned them.
Waterman simply refused to recognize Black’s pumpkin, and he had the ear of
the Guinness people. His reason was simple, and he defends it today. WPC rules
state clearly that no pumpkin can be weighed with a tarp. Even though this is a
common practice around the world, Waterman is absolute. “I’m just out to
protect the sport,” he contends. He told the Guinness people to ignore Don
Black. And they did.
Howard Dill hired a lawyer, who sent a barrage of letters and legal papers
to the Guinness folks in England. Dill and his supporters argued that everyone
uses a tarp, that a tarp couldn’t possibly weigh 48 pounds, the difference
between Black’s and Craven’s pump ins. But the Guinness people held firm. So
then Dill and his people went after Norm Craven and his pumpkin. Craven’s
pumpkin, they contended, was weighed with a tarp, too. And worse. Much worse.
“Norm Craven was in my workshop the night before he was to leave for
Port Elgin,” recalled Phil Lillie, a veteran pumpkin grower. “He
cried to me it was rotten under the bottom. But he thought they might not
inspect it. And he had the stem with silicone in it, because the stem was all
split. He was saying, `Gosh, you know, it’s going to be disqualified. But I’ll
take it. Maybe they’ll never notice.’ The judges didn’t notice because it was
so big. They were so overwhelmed by the size.”
Harry Willemse, 41, a Canadian and 13-year veteran grower, was also at Port
Elgin at the weigh-off. “It’s questionable whether Norm’s pumpkin should
have qualified for the weigh-off,” he said. “One of the rules is the
pumpkin must be solid, and no soft spots. Basically, it was rotting. You could
just see the juice seeping out slowly. Norm’s, had a very wide split in it and
it was seeping out. He must have plugged it up with something, for it to be
oozing out like that.”
Craven denies all of this. “All made-up stories,” he says. Craven
lost many friends in the pumpkin world by remaining silent. Through his own
inaction he allowed Don Black to be denied. “Nobody’s happy for you,”
says Craven. “Just the opposite. They’re out to get you.”
Meanwhile, the poor Guinness people have found themselves in the middle of
an awful fight.
Sarah Llewellyn-Jones, the deputy editor who handles vegetable records, was
exasperated in a recent telephone interview. “We have more than 10,000
records in the Guinness book,” she said. “This has been the most
troublesome one ever…. You have the truth being perverted time and time
again. None of them I can trust anymore.”
Guinness is considering dropping pumpkins altogether.
ON SUNDAY, SEPT. 10, TONY CILIBERTO BUILT A house. Around his pumpkin. He
drove in eight-foot stakes around the plant grown from the seed of Joel
Holland’s 722- pounder – one plant occupying an area almost the size of a
tennis court – and covered the wooden frame with Remay, a fiberglass that traps
in heat, but allows water and light to pass through.
On this date, Tony’s pumpkin was among the largest in the world – estimated
at 903 pounds. It rose high and muscular off the ground, rippling, like the
neck of a bull. The color was a tender orange, tending toward cantaloupe.
Every Monday, Tony entered his patch with a tape measure and chronicled the
growth, beginning with pollination on July 3. On July 10 he wrote “size of
a baseball.” July 17: “50 inches in circumference, bigger than
basketball.” A week later it was 86 inches around and a week after that
On this Sunday morning, his pumpkin was 164 inches around, or nearly 14
feet. It was 104 inches over the top one way 99 inches the other, for a total
of 361 inches – rather auspicious, given that Herman Bax’s 990 was 371 inches.
And Tony still had time on his side.
Tony calculated his pumpkin’s weight by using Len Stellpflug’s chart, a
bible among pumpkin growers. Stellpflug, a retired Kodak engineer, had plotted
these three measurements taken from scores of pumpkins over the years and used
regression analysis to calculate a pumpkin’s weight. The chart wasn’t a
guarantee, but it was a good reference point.
All summer, Tony had gotten the sunshine he wanted. His leaves loved the sun, which threw photosynthesis into high gear and fed his pumpkin well. But on the flipside, he knew that too much direct sun on the pumpkin itself could be fatal, and he kept the pumpkin garaged under plywood during July and August. “The sun actually can cook them,” said Tony. “The temperature inside a pumpkin, it can get so high they actually explode.”
The summer drought didn’t bother his plants, either. Tony just kept his wellwater flowing, telling his wife to hold off on the wash as much as possible. He rerouted his drain pipes and sent water from the household shower and sinks into his patch. But summer was now rapidly turning to autumn. And now he needed to keep his pumpkin warm, to keep it growing 3-1/2 more weeks. The temperature in the mountains had dipped to 32 the previous night. His new greenhouse would keep his pumpkin warm, perhaps keep it growing. The weigh-off was Oct. 7.
He had 26 days to gain 97 pounds.
On Thursday, Oct. 5, just two days before the international weigh-off, a dozen men assembled at Tony Ciliberto’s house. Hurricane Opal arrived about the same time. Normally, Tony would have left his pumpkin on the vine one more night. But he had a big decision to make – where to take his pumpkin for weigh-off, a GPC site or a WPC site? It all depended on the weight.
Waterman had announced he would pay $50,000 to any grower who came to a WPC site with a 1,000-pound pumpkin. Many growers were skeptical. “He’ll never pay scoffed Don Black. Tony was planning to go to Ottawa, a GPC site, but the $50,000 was calling him. He had to know.
So Tony and his pals, including his brother Dino, descended into the patch, now a pen of mud. The patch Tony tended so carefully was trampled by men, as Tony ripped vines out of the way so they wouldn’t trip. His wife and kids and parents and in-laws all stood in the rain and watched. Tony pulled out his knife and cut the umbilical chord. The pumpkin was free.
The men surrounded the pumpkin. They needed to roll it on one side, and then the other, to slide the tarp beneath it. Tony pushed harder than anyone. “Arrrgghhhhhh!” He winced like a woman in childbirth.
The men hoisted the pumpkin and placed it gently on its throne: a skid covered with straw resting on a forklift.
Tony Ciliberto, who hadn’t smoked a cigarette in more than a year, lit a Newport.
The forklift driver placed the pumpkin carefully on two old scales Tony had placed side- by-side on his driveway. The rain stopped and the sky cleared, if only for a moment. The crowd gathered around. Tony balanced one scale, while Dino balanced the other.
“What are you at, Dino?”, Tony asked.
“397,” said Dino.
“I’m at 510,” said Tony.
A voice in the crowd yelled out, “907!”
There was silence. The skies were gray again. Rain was falling.
“She’s not even 900 pounds,” Tony said with disbelief, “We’ve got to subtract for the skid and the tarp. She’s about 847.”
“Can’t be,” said his wife.
“No way,” said his dad.
Tony just circled his pumpkin. He was devastated, but his expression did not betray him.
He did not mourn the $50,000 he would never see – no, that money never seemed real anyway. Tony felt broken-hearted. Like a seductress, this pumpkin had romanced him, had led him on, only in the end to deceive him.
That night, he called Don Black.
“She’s a lightweight, Don,” he said with merciless honesty.
“She just didn’t measure up.”
TONY, JOAN AND THE KIDS towed the pumpkin to Ottawa, which might as well have been Cooperstown. Herman Bax and Barry Dejong were there. So were Don Black and Len Stellpflug and many other big growers in the pumpkin world.
The weigh-off was held at Farmer Gus’s pumpkin farm. All the veterans could tell immediately that Paula Zehr’s was the pumpkin to beat. Tony and Don checked it out. Tony knocked on it with his fist.
“No thud there at all,” said Tony, “Solid.”
“Oh, yeah,” agreed Don. “The meat is 10 inches thick, easy.”
Tony’s pumpkin weighed officially at 845. Paula Zehr’s weighed in at 963, the heaviest in the world this year. Her pumpkin had virtually the same dimensions as Tony’s on the Stellpflug scale, but carried an extra 118 pounds.
Perhaps the difference was maternal. Twice each day, Zehr hugged her pumpkin.
“For about five minutes at a time,” she said.
Obviously the pumpkin responded.
Tony clapped for Paula, and walked over to congratulate her. But as she stood behind the scale with her champion, posing for the networks, the tears rolling down her cheeks, Tony’s eyes seemed watery, too, welling with disappointment.
Tony Ciliberto is accustomed to setback. After all, he is a pumpkin grower. He knew and his wife knew and every grower there knew this sadness would soon pass. The quest for the first 1,000-pound pumpkin would continue.
“We’ll be back again,” Tony said, gazing off into the middle distance, perhaps already thinking about next year’s seeds. “We’ll be back again.”