Unlike its tame cousins--cherry pit and watermelon seed spitters, hawkers are truly hard-core. These men, and they are all mostly men, will travel long distances to practice the art and science of professional spitting. Bragging rights and the admiration of their peers are the only rewards given in what has now become an underground sport.
It has been driven underground by local boards of health who have been advised by epidemiologists at the CDC to ban the activity. The scientists point out that spitting contests have been shown to be epicenters of the spread of viral and bacterial diseases. Working with officials in China, they have attributed the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) to an international gathering of hawkers in that country.
This reporter recently attended an outlaw event at a secret location where dozens of hawkers competed in contests judged for accuracy and distance. (The names of the contestants were not to be revealed and photographs were forbidden.) I wore safety glasses and a surgical mask but, in retrospect, a full hazmat suit would have better served. It was an utterly disgusting affair.
To truly convey the spirit and flavor of hawking, it is necessary to tell of its most storied and famous (or infamous) practitioner, Francis X. Pectorate. After the contest and after cleaning myself up, I sat with some of the hawkers in a local bar where tales were told of Mr. Pectorate.
"Old Francis could put your eye out with a seven-ounce clam at twenty paces," one phlegmatic man said.
"He would go to the pediatrician's office a week before a big event and lick the doorknobs so as to catch a cold or flu and develop the throw-weight of his phlegm. Why, he won the '78 U.S. Open with a hunnert and four degree fever and ague so bad he could hardly stand.
"He would cough up a lugie, roll it around in his mouth to determine its mucoid consistency, and then he might add some of a special powdered clay he that carried in a little vial in his pocket, to give it density and form, you know, and then, Watch out! He'd power that viscous bolus of fortified snot downrange up to forty yards and he usually hit the target dead-center, if'n he got the windage right.
"If he couldn't catch a cold in the summer, he'd induce phlegm with a snort of cayenne powder or with a special concoction of ragweed and pine tree pollen.
"We all learned a lot from that great man. He was a legend in his own time. We lost a great teacher and inspiration when he passed away." (Francis died in 2005 from pneumonia, his immune system overwhelmed by the sheer variety of pathogens accumulated during that year.)
Frankly, most of the events in a hawking tourney are not worth describing; they follow the protocols of other shooting sports and are sorted into typical categories of singles and team events, age groups, etc. An exacting description is likely to both bore and dismay the average reader.
One event stands out from the rest and is the most dangerous to the spectator. This is the Hit-The-Fly contest. The hawker must stand at the center of a fifteen-yard diameter circle that is delineated by a chalked line. All around the circle, judges and spectators stand shoulder to shoulder. A fly (usually a large horsefly) is released from a remotely-operated cage near the center of the circle and the contestant attempts to knock it down in flight. Points are awarded on the basis of distance. The best shooters are those that can hit the fly just as it is about to escape the circle.
With three dozen men competing in a double-elimination tournament, many spectators are bound to be hit or even wounded, with eye injuries predominating, though choking has occurred on several occasions. Many spectators will later be admitted to hospitals for the treatment of various communicable diseases. (At the funeral of Francis X. Pectorate, the Surgeon General of the U.S. was overheard referring to him as "a Walking Plague". The S.G. was there to oversee the high-temperature cremation of the virulent remains.)
All in all, the decline of the outlawed sport is a positive sign for society. For some men, though, hawking will surely continue. Prohibition by the government will simply be like spitting into the wind.