The secret, of course, is to keep your eye on a grape and your mouth agape. Forty-six-year-old Paul Tavila can probably do it better than any man alive. And two weeks ago the hours of patience and practice paid off in a big way. For Tavila regained the world record for catching a tossed grape in the mouth. The purple missile had been thrown an incredible 270 feet and four inches.
Tavila’s original record of 251 feet in July, 1977, had been broken by a Louisiana grape catcher (he managed a 259foot feat) earlier this year. Now, standing in front of the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Tavila waited as Mike Weir, a police officer from a nearby town, wound up his pitching arm. Then, Officer Weir shot the grape forward. Tavila moved to one side, clamped his mouth shut over his catch, and stood motionless while tapes were brought for the measurement. A cheer went up from the sidelines. It was a historic moment.
There are those who claim that grape catching and cow chip tossing and tobacco juice spitting and fried worm eating and the rest are all a lot of poortaste nonsense. But there are others who say that they’re the spice of American life, the foundation of folklore for the future, and the best possible pastimes for the long hot summer when the United States traditionally goes dogday crazy.
Now, Vince Luciani, 52, an electrical engineer, has published what is believed to be the most comprehensive list of
wacky competitions held in the U.S. each year. He hopes to publish one for Canada by 1981. His 96-page study, somewhat prosaically named Guide to Unusual Contests in America, carries information on 170 such oddities throughout the country. He believes there may be as many as 1,000.
“These competitions are frequently a reflection of history or they are something connected with a local industry, such as the chicken plucking contest in Florida,” says Luciani. “The chicken industry is big in part of the state and they have immortalized it, very nearly, with their unusual chicken plucking contest. It’s generally womenfolk who compete. A team of four will line up before a stack of chickens and then just go at ’em and clean ’em in a minimum amount of time. A team of four women plucked a total of 12 chickens in 67 seconds. As I put it, the feathers really did
As an example of the more historic event, Luciani recalls attending the National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, this year. “It is fantastic. The open enthusiasm and participation of the people can’t be matched. It’s all based on a custom going back to the days before television and radio when the only means of communication between faraway neighbors in the mountains was to holler. Each man would have his own special holler,
and one kind of shout would just mean ‘good morning’ while another might mean that someone was sick and there was an emergency.”
Said Luciani: “They say that in the old days three or four neighbors would all join together in a symphony of hollerin’. There are some marvelous yells. And they can carry for a mile or more.”
Among the other contests that have caught Luciani’s imagination are races for frogs, turtles, one-legged men and crabs. Luciani’s own favorite is the cow chip tossing contest in Beaver, Oklahoma.
“This again started from the old days out on the plains where these cow chips were commonly and naturally available,” says Luciani. “After they had been out under the sun for a few months they dried into a very compact and substantial bundle, shaped in the form of a saucer. The cowboys used them, out of boredom, for tossing competitions. To perpetuate that custom the local people today have the official contest. One of the aspects that I just love is that they have a special division for professional politicians.”
There are at least three chicken flying competitions. Each bird is put in a box on top of a 12-foot-high wall, then the box lids are suddenly opened. The chicken steps out, finds himself falling through the air and starts flapping. Some go as far as 163 feet.
Says Luciani: “The sort of enthusiasm of the people who attend these different contests exceeds the enthusiasm you see from the people who attend a football game or a baseball game. Contest people are a unique brand. If we were evaluated by a psychologist, he would find some characteristics that are different from normal people. The spontaneous fun from an unusual contest is far greater than from profes-
sional activities. And it’s a very American thing. Crazy, but we love it.”
Dr. Barry Pearson, assistant professor and folklorist at the University of Maryland, is not at all sure that many of the unusual contests are really folklore in the making and suspects that, rather, they are commercially inspired by business to attract tourists.
“For example, how traditional could a tractor pull be in terms of time?” asks Pearson. “On the other hand it seems to be very traditional in using that type of farm technology for fun, whether it would be oxen or horses or something like that. I can tell you that these contests are booming. We seem to be getting more and more of them.”
All traditions have to start somewhere. There must be a beginning and one test of their “folksiness” might be in how long they last. Will they still be throwing and catching grapes in 100 years?
Some events certainly seem to have the makings of history and maybe deserve to be continued. Take for instance the “Smokers-Wheezers-Boozers Marathon” which began and ended, appropriately enough, at bars in downtown Denver, Colorado, last July. With several stops at watering holes along the way, nearly 60 out-of-shape “marathon” runners managed to jog, walk, limp or stumble the 10 long blocks involved and raise several thousand dollars in the process.
The marathon was for the benefit of Jeff Ferrell who was shot in the head in June when he ordered three men out of The Tipsy Tiger, a bar where he worked as a doorman. The 34-year-old bouncer needs about $2,000 a week for medical expenses. Two other bar owners decided to organize the event to help raise money for their friend. There is talk now of it becoming an annual affair with cash going to some good “drinking man’s cause.” Who knows, in time it may replace Johnny Appleseed.
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