By Pat Piper, AUNE online content manager
When Nancy Sporborg reached out to the Keene community for volunteers to count pumpkins during the Keene Pumpkin Festival to try and break the Guinness World Record for carved and lit jack-o-lanterns, how could I resist? As a member of the AUNE Communications and Marketing team, I was already involved in planning for our role as the sponsor of the festival’s Food and Craft Court. We had worked feverishly all week preparing to put Antioch’s face out to the Keene community. I met my office mates, Jan Fiderio, Susan Harlow, and Katherine Richardson, at Antioch on a beautiful Saturday morning to start loading our vehicles with pumpkins, brochures, pipe and drape, extension cords, clip lights, and all the banners that had been so beautifully designed by our graphic designer, Karen Drudi.
We talked a parking cop into letting us get close to our huge orange tent, located on Gilbo Avenue, and hauled everything to that location. As we carried our loads, a crane operator was busy putting up the FOOD AND CRAFT COURT IS SPONSORED BY ANTIOCH UNIVERSITY NEW ENGLAND banner. We moved tables, put on table cloths, and set up brochures and five beautiful standing banners representing each of AUNE’s programs along the back of the tent with pipe and drape backdrop. Everyone pitched in. Students began arriving around 10:30 and they helped finish setting up. The Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation students sold their coffees and teas and Dance/Movement Therapy students danced in the streets, handing out stickers and getting the AUNE name out there, letting everyone who passed by know that AUNE is a member of the Keene community too!
My Antioch set up done, I began showing my partner, Theresa, the festival grounds. She had never been to the Pumpkin Festival before. The sun was shining, the big crowds hadn’t arrived yet, and the pumpkins were there in abundance. We stopped at the Swamp Bats food tent for a naughty lunch of cheeseburgers and fries and sat down for the first time in three hours. The crowds were growing, and we saw every kind of costume and a gazillion different carved jack-o-lanterns.
Theresa and I were one of 16 teams who volunteered to count pumpkins in Keene’s attempt to bring the Guinness World record home for most carved and lit jack-o-lanterns (by the time designated as the evening’s deadline). We met with all our teammates in a conference room on the second floor of the new fire station and were briefed by Nancy Sporborg, the volunteer in charge planning all the things that needed to happen to bring the world record back to Keene.
We were all assigned areas (in our case, Central Square West), and made sure we had tea candles, butane lighters, sharpie markers, a pad and pen. We were to count every pumpkin in our area, putting an “X” in a visible spot on the pumpkin to show that that particular pumpkin had been counted. Theresa and I worked fast. She counted the low ones, and I counted the high ones. She counted one side of the display and I counted the other. Every so often we regrouped to make sure we covered our entire area. We didn’t want to miss a single pumpkin! As we counted, the crowd grew and it became more and more difficult to get access to the pumpkins to count and mark the all-important X. Some people asked me what I was doing, but since I was counting in my head and could not stop to talk or lose count, I smiled and kept going, counting out loud and hoping they’d get it. Between the two of us we counted over 3,000 pumpkins on Central Square West.
Once we had done a first pass, we were supposed to do a second pass in case any new pumpkins had been placed in our area. Since we had no control over where people placed their pumpkins, it was the only way to make sure all the pumpkins were counted.
Light ‘Em Up!
Around 4 o’clock, the announcement went out to begin the process of lighting the pumpkins. As our area was already so full of pumpkins, we found few new ones to count and so turned our attention to lighting.
Now lighting jack-o-lanterns was a whole different experience than counting. It was hard. It was messy. It was frustrating. It was also fun, amazing, and magical. Theresa lit the low ones and I lit the high ones. Some pumpkins had no candle, some were almost impossible to remove the top to get to the candle, all of them that had candles had candles whose wicks were lying flat against the top of the candle and were impossible to light. That meant we had to remove the candle, lift the wick, light it, and put it back. There were pumpkins that were so old they had started rotting from the inside out and putting my hand in was like putting my hand in a vat of slimy, greasy gopher guts. Blech!
Time ticked toward the deadline. Spectators pitched in to help light pumpkins, which was great–some needing a lighter, some needing a candle, some needing guidance or information. We gave them everything they needed. Fast! We gave it to them quickly, both of us knowing we were on a time clock. As the sun set lower in the sky and shadows lengthened I took stock of our area and saw that at least a third of the pumpkins were unlit. How were we ever going to get them lit in time? Every unlit pumpkin was going to be subtracted from our list.
Nope. Not on our watch. We started working even faster, feverishly lighting candle after candle, yanking off the tops, pushing the tops up by putting a finger through an eye hole, tipping them over, pulling them off the shelf when we couldn’t reach inside.
We stopped for a moment and Theresa and I looked around, just breathing, and what we saw was amazing. Hundreds and hundreds of jack-o-lanterns blazing or quivering or glowing with inner light. It was magical. I looked at myself. My Antioch t-shirt was spotted with pumpkin guts. My hands were sticky, covered in pumpkin slime as were my shoes and the knees of my jeans. I laughed a big and hard and we kept on lighting.
Around 6:40 p.m., they announced that in ten minutes all the lighting would stop and the counters (that meant us) had five minutes to run around our area and count any unlit jack-o-lanterns that we saw. The crowd was asked to be quiet, to stand absolutely still and move away from the pumpkins so the counters could move through unimpeded and do our counting. Most people cooperated. As we positioned ourselves on either side of the longest stretch of jack-o-lanterns I asked people to step back so I could get through. I was pumped, I was stoked, I had no idea if we had broken the record, and I knew that I had done the best I could to make it happen.
At 6:50, the klaxon went off and we started jogging and looking for unlit pumpkins. We had five minutes, so we had to really move. People stood still watching us, hope in their eyes, Moms and Dads pointing us out to children tucked close to their legs, the dark deepening and the glow of the light of thousands of jack-o-lanterns bursting inside me. I felt I was a part of something big, something bigger than me, and I was there, a volunteer, working fast and hard, and loving myself for doing it.
When the five minutes was up, the still and silent crowd gave a yell and began moving again. Theresa and I had been instructed to go to the fire house for the final count as soon as we were done. We walked in, first ones there, first ones in the bathroom to wash off a bit, and first ones to sit our tired bodies down in the meeting room. I was thirsty, dreaming of a cold drink, and being off my feet was heaven.
Each group reported out their total number of pumpkins counted, total unlit pumpkins, and the final total. Theresa and I reported out 3,109, seven unlit, for a total of 3,102. I had a calculator and started adding up the final total column. When all the numbers were on the whiteboard I hit the equals button and could not believe what I was seeing.
“30, 581 lit jack-o-lanterns,” I yelled out. I cleared the calculator and counted again and the number was the same. We had done it. We had broken the record. We had brought it home. The entire room erupted in cheers, high fives, hugs. I gave out a huge “wahoo” that scared half the people in the room. We had done it.
We, the counters, the board, the festival organizers, the City of Keene, Antioch University New England, the thousands of Keene school children and community members had all come together, jack-o-lantern by jack-o-lantern, and beat the world record!