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Originally published in Christian Science Monitor,(Halloween, lit with 5,000 candle power, 2003).
All rights reserved. c Lesley Bannatyne
It's dusk on opening night of the 2001 Jack o' lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. With only ten minutes until showtime--when all 5,000 jack o' lanterns need to be in place and lit--John Reckner bumps a wheelbarrow piled with pumpkins down a dirt path. His crew criss-crosses the three-acre site, bending to light tea candles inside each jack o' lantern, then running to the next. A volunteer leans into a 100-pounder with a barbecue lighter and jabs at the wicks of the candles inside. Someone kicks on the fog machine. The sky glows orange for a few more brief moments, then darkness hits.
The first audience piles through the gate, giddy at the sight: a 300-pound giant pumpkin carved in the likeness of Humphrey Bogart flickers softly in a copse of tall pines. A glowing orange Abe Lincoln squats among a dozen other ten-times-larger-than-life presidents. There's Harry Potter. Jim Morrison. Archie Bunker. Five hundred carved jack o' lanterns hang along the limbs of a giant tree. Nine hundred dot a craggy hillside trail.
This is pumpkin carving at its best, due largely to the all-consuming passion of an Oxford, Massachusetts letter carrier who saves up vacation days so he can create a new show each fall.
"I spend all day walking around thinking up ideas," Reckner explains. "And I love the outdoors, so what I like most is being able to blend the pumpkins into a landscape and highlight its beauty."
Reckner's been in love with pumpkins since he took his family up to northern Vermont one October more than fourteen years ago. He'd heard about a town called Northfield Falls, where each house carved a giant gourd on Halloween. They approached the town as the late afternoon light grew dim and the air turned cold. The Ford took a turn along the two-lane highway and, to the family's amazement, they came face-to-face with hundreds of jack 'o lanterns blazing away on a hillside.
It was a sight they'd never forget.
"We started out in 1988 with a couple hundred pumpkins, and put them up behind a local school in Oxford. About 300 people came," he says, recalling his first pumpkin show.
By 1999, there were 20,000 folks walking through the display over an eight-day period and Reckner, along with his son, daughter, and the thirty friends who'd helped out since the beginning, were carving upwards of 4,000 gourds.
"This is probably the last year," he'd say every September. "I don't know if I'm going to keep doing this."
In 2001, Reckner moved the show to Providence's Roger Williams Park Zoo, where 80,000 people saw the show and the Zoo had to turn thousands more away at the gate.
"It was a perfect marriage," recounts Lisa Bousquet, the Zoo's Public Relations Director. "We took care of the ticket booths and bathrooms so that John could concentrate on what he does best--carving."
It's really a family enterprise. All year long, Reckner and his wife and two grown children--all of whom went to art school--collect design ideas and patterns. Then at harvest time, they buy pumpkins and do the sketching. Once the carving begins, there's no letup till it's done. The giant pumpkins get turned over to "gutting Marines" who clean out the pulp and soak the pumpkins with watered-down fungicide. Then, for a week straight, they carve. Or rather, engrave. A team of about fifteen art school graduates use flexible paring knives to skin off a thin layer of rind, making carvings that are extraordinarily fine and detailed. Another team handles the "fillers," simple jack o' lanterns that they can carve as quickly as one pumpkin every three minutes.
Running the show is also non-stop work: "Every day we'd take away the rotted ones, light the show, run the show, come home, redo the big ones, get up at 8 a.m. and start all over. It had to be that way," says Reckner.
The pumpkin crew has their own kind of language," grins Lisa. "Dorothy's down but the Scarecrow's OK. Bogart is rotten. Edith will last another day but Archie's gonna be mush after tonight."
To John Reckner and crew, these are not fruits, they're performers. Divas even. Take, for example, the 800-pound beauty carved with the image of firefighters hoisting the American flag for the 2001 show. It took ten men standing shoulder to shoulder in the cold, digging the toes of their boots in the mud to shove a blanket under it, then gently drag the giant to the loading lift of their truck. Twenty hands guarded the pumpkin as it ascended; twenty hands pulled the blanket into the truck for the trip to Providence.
Reckner's worst nightmare?
"Periodically I have a dream. We don't even have the pumpkins yet and it's showtime."
Worst real-life nightmare?
"One of my biggest fears is dropping the pumpkins. One of the Norman Rockwells took us five hours to carve, and it got dropped. Then once there was Humpty Dumpty. We had a big old dead tree and we cut it in half. We were trying to get a 100-lb. Humpty pumpkin up the tree using two ladders and, well…it fell."
The 2002 show has been percolating in Reckner's imagination ever since he turned the 2001 show into compost for his Japanese garden. He's planning to carve pumpkins in the likenesses of icons of the ancient world like King Tut, Cleopatra, and Plato; scenes from literature such as The Hobbit; and homages to trains, baseball, John Wayne and Christmas. Pumpkins carved as whimsical clocks will be set in a chiming clock tower. Many more will float in the pond alongside Mozart's carved-pumpkin portrait to music from the Marriage of Figaro. "I love to combine music with the carving. And classical pieces have a subtler effect on people," he says. "That's the challenge--trying to keep it a unique experience."
No one can argue that Reckner, or his pumpkins are not unique.
Last Halloween, as the sun went down, John walked the pumpkin trail at the Zoo for the final time that year. He rounded up a dozen rotted gourds, pulled them into his truck, and set a dozen, freshly carved, in their places. The pond's surface was still. Voices drifted from the other shore--last minute instructions to the ticket takers in the parking lot, requests for flashlights. Then, darkness.
A mom, dad and two kids have driven all the way from Kentucky to see this, and as the crowd cascaded through the front gate the family stopped dead in their tracks.
John Reckner's Jack 'o lantern Spectacular was named a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress in 1999.
Pumpkin Carving Tips:
Carve thin: the more guts you remove the longer your jack o' lantern will last--try to scrape out all but about 1/4" of the rind.
Watch the temperature: cold is good, hot is bad. If the weather gets warm, bring your pumpkins into a cool cellar.
Moisturize: rub petroleum jelly along cut edges to prevent the pumpkin from drying out (this also deters pumpkin snatchers).
Vent: if you use a candle to light your jack 'o lantern, cut a small hole in the lid to release heat so the pumpkin doesn't start to cook.