[*A correction to something I said yesterday: those pick-up trucks? The ones backed up against the fence? Those might as well be V.I.P. seats. You have to reserve one of those spots (though they usually go to the parents of the teens in The Scramble - no better place to cheer on your kid than at ground level, where they might be able to hear you under their helmets).]
[*And my apologies for the increasing lack of picture quality. We lost the light as the event rolled into the evening, and however bright the stadium lights might have made things, it just couldn't compare to the light of the sun. Sorry.]
Anyway. The Scramble.
The rules are simple. High School girls participate in the Pig Scramble. If you catch a pig, you have half an hour to get the pig into the chalk circle at the center of the arena. As long as your hands are on the piggy, it's yours - no one can come and steal it out of your arms. But if you lose your hold on the pig? Then it's fair game. And if you get your pig to the circle, you're guaranteed an animal to raise and show at next year's fair.
The piggies scatter as the girls run into the herd, diving face first into the mud, scrabbling for pig legs. Some of the lucky pig-catchers gamely get their legs under them, hauling the animals off the ground and carrying them to the circle. They know this is not a game of stamina.
The others hunker down over their pigs, holding them still with their whole bodies until they can work out a plan of attack.
(Don't fret for the piggies, though. These animals weigh just as much, if not more, as the girls lying on top of them. If anyone's feeling broken and abused by the end of the night, it's not the ham.)
From there on, the techniques vary. Most shimmy their way forward on their knees, arms tightly latched around the pig beneath them, pushing their way towards the circle one agonizing inch at a time. The vultures have descended at this point, girls with empty hands standing at the ready over the mud-covered pig-holders, waiting for the moment the pork makes a run for it. Last year's participants are also nearby, barking out warnings to the troublemakers trying to startle the animals, and ready to help the exhausted winners out of the mud.
One by one, the piggies get to the circle. One girl lays on her side and kicks her way backwards through the mud to the chalk. Another, to the delighted cheers of the crowd, wraps her arms and legs around the animal, and barrel-rolls herself and her pig to the center of the arena. The stadium roars when the last girl drags her pig home, and she leaves the arena with jelly legs, while the rest of the challengers leave with mud.
The Calf Scramble isn't much different, though everything feels like it's been kicked up a notch.
Teenaged boys are released into the arena to chase down the calves. Once they get their hands on the beef, they have forty-five minutes to correctly tie a harness on the animal and lead it into the newly drawn chalk circle. Like the pig scramble, as long as you're touching the animal, it's yours, and like the pig scramble, if you lose it, you're out of luck. Get the calf to the circle, and you've got an animal to show at next years fair.
The stadium rumbles under the cheers of the crowd, the energy of the boys, the racing of the calves. Over the loudspeaker, the announcer tells us that only one of these animals weighs less than 500 pounds, and we hold our breath when a boy disappears under the legs of a beast. He pops up right after, covered in mud but no worse for wear.
Number 8, the only boy not taller than a calf, captures our hearts when he pushes the sleeves of his too-big sweatshirt up over his hands and throws his arms around the first animal that comes his way. He digs his heels deep into the mud, and sets to tying his harness around the calf's head. We cheer his certain victory.
On the other end of the arena, other boys have caught and harnessed their own animals, but there's still one rogue on the loose. It runs from one end to the other, down to the place where Number 8 is leading his stubborn calf towards the circle. The rogue barrels through the space between them, ripping the rope out of Number 8's hands, and the crowd boos as a vulture swoops down and hastily unties the harness from the newly liberated calf. Number 8, with mud on his front and his hands rubbed raw, hangs his head. He will not win a calf today.
The rest of the evening is less inspiring. The boys with the longest arms wrap the leads around one hand, and wrap their other hand around the tail to better navigate their stubborn calves. The rest just dig their boots deeper into the slippery mud, pulling forward while the animals plant their feet and push decidedly backwards. And if one of last year's boys comes around the back to give the beast a motivating slap on rump, just to move things along, well, maybe we all pretend not to see it.