If you’ve ever thrown a big raucous party, you know that cleaning up the aftermath is more challenging (and less fun) than party prep. Here in Keene, the build-up to Saturday’s Pumpkin Festival was pretty impressive…but the all-but-instantaneous cleanup afterward is even more incredible.

It’s a point of pride here in Keene that the remnants of each year’s Pumpkin Festival will be cleaned up completely by noon the day after: noon. Imagine a festival in which Downtown traffic is re-routed so some 70,000 people can stroll down streets fringed with pumpkin-laden scaffolds; imagine a festival that erects four separate stories-tall towers supporting even more pumpkins. Imagine a festival where people are still arriving and bringing more pumpkins right up until the big gourd-count (and fireworks) at 8:30 pm. Each year’s Pumpkin Festival goes until 10:00 on Saturday night, and each year’s Pumpkin Festival cleanup is completed by noon the morning after. When’s the last time you or anyone you know threw a massive, World-Record making party and then had everything cleaned up by noon the next day?

Today’s pictures come from yesterday’s dog-walk around Downtown Keene. Before you tsk and shake your head at the trash, pumpkin detritus, and piled-up scaffold remnants, step back and consider this interesting fact: I took these photos at 8:00 am on Sunday morning. When, again, is the last time you or anyone you know threw a massive, World-Record making party and then was awake and sober enough to clean at 8:00 the next morning?

The Pumpkin Festival, like Keene’s annual Christmas tree lighting and New Year’s Eve celebrations, is organized by the non-profit Center Stage organization, and they’ve perfected the art of pumpkin cleanup. In the Festival’s early days, Saturday night’s jack-o’-lanterns became Sunday morning’s pig-slop as smashed-up pumpkins were carted off to local farms. In recent years, though, the Festival has outgrown the bellies of local pigs. In 1997 when the Festival gathered a then-Record-breaking 13,432 pumpkins, some 59.08 tons of gourds were added the Keene landfill’s compost pile the day after. When’s the last time you or someone you know threw a party that produced 59.08 tons of party detritus?

Of course, that was 1997; this is now. This year, Boston’s feeble attempt to break Keene’s standing World Record of 28,952 lit gourds garnered an impressive but eminently non-Record-breaking 16,402 lit pumpkins…and I can only imagine how long it’s taking a World Series-distracted city to clean up the tons of trash from that. This year, Keene tallied a “mere” 27,584 pumpkins: about 1,600 fewer gourds than last year’s picture-perfect festival. If 13,000 pumpkins translate into 59.08 tons of trash, imagine how many tons were carted from Downtown Keene yesterday morning!

One key to Keene’s seemingly miraculous cleanup is widespread community involvement. Whereas Boston’s Pumpkin Festival was just another party in an event-addled City, life in Keene stands still for the Pumpkin Festival. Yesterday as I walked the dog through the early-morning cleanup, we passed one Festival organizer who was uttering military-style commands into a walkie-talkie: “Which company owns the big fork-lift? You need to find out and get it here now.” Many of the fork-lift operators, construction crews, and dumptruck drivers toiling from the crack of dawn yesterday were working on donated time. As an act of community outreach (and free advertising), many local companies and contractors offer their services in return for the good will (and free advertising) that comes from their listing as a “Festival contributor.”

The pros aren’t the only ones who chip in to help with morning-after cleanup. Last year I woke and walked the dog early enough (or was that late enough?) to see local students helping out. I don’t know the genius who came up with the idea to encourage middle- and high-school guys to smash day-after pumpkins while giggling throngs of middle- and high-school girls push brooms, but apparently it works. If you give teenagers enough hot cocoa and donuts–and if you wave the flag of “Community Service” or even “Extra Credit”–you’d be surprised how much fun they can have doing “work.”

Yesterday morning, the throngs of students I saw where standing around looking useless: at 8:00 am, most of the pumpkins had already been smashed and tossed into waiting dumpsters. Already at 8:00 am, Downtown traffic was back to normal. Cars were parked at the usual meters, and both locals and folks from outlying towns were zipping down Main Street on their way to one or both sources of Sunday morning edification: church or Starbucks. On Saturday, Keene was all things pumpkin; on Sunday, it’s back to normal (and back to work) in the aftermath.

As I write these words, I’m listening to a Boston TV-newscast. Among perky predictions for a World Series sweep are more somber mentions of the tragic aftermath of the Red Sox’ incredible journey: details of the funeral arrangements for 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove, killed by a poorly aimed police pepper-pellet at a post-game riot, and nasty photos of Paul Gately’s pellet-pummeled torso. Although I’ve never been in a Boston sports riot, I was nearly squashed in the angry aftermath of Green Day’s free 1994 Hatch Shell concert: I’ve seen how quickly a fun-loving crowd can turn nasty. We live in a seemingly civilized nation, yet images of Gately’s bruised chest remind me of the gruesome photos my undergraduate anthropology professor brought back from Belfast as proof of what rubber bullets really do to human flesh.

Compared with such realities, life in quiet little Keene seems quaintly idyllic: imagine 70,000 people wandering the streets in a festival that (according to Sunday’s Sentinel) involved nearly no crime. Keene isn’t Paradise, but it seems far removed from Boston much less Belfast. Whether our small-town setting brings out the best in people or whether the Angry Element stays in their cars and shuns our purely pedestrian party, the Pumpkin Festival is a rare breed: a truly family event where you can stroll the streets, eat Festival food, listen to music, and enjoy the constant visual stimulus of cute kids in costumes, laughing grown-ups, and all those pumpkins.

Although this year’s Festival didn’t break any World Records, last year’s record is unbroken, and (as Red Sox fans have been long practiced at saying) there’s always next year. Record-breaking or not, this year’s party was pretty amazing, and the seamless cleanup after a smoothly-organized event is even more impressive. A good time was had by all, and less than 12 hours afterward, everything was on its way back to “squeaky clean.” In other words, the Pumpkin Fest is that rarest of breeds: Good Clean Fun.

    Be sure to read Leslee’s account of our day at the Pumpkin Festival. Even at our first face-to-face meeting, Leslee perceived my true nature as a Loud Bitch. That Leslee survived our day of Hunk Hunting proves that she’s pretty Smashing herself.