Bravado turns to relief before the pig scramble

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"Gee, Harry! Gee! Harry, gee!"

The youngest child turned to me with a worried face.

"I don't like the man whipping the cows."

"He's not whipping them, sweetheart. He's guiding them."

"I wouldn't want to be guided that way!" said another daughter. She pulled off another gob of pale blue cotton candy and popped it into her mouth.

"Bet you'd turn right faster than they do, poor things," I laughed. "They're not very bright, but boy are they strong."

It was a spectacular late summer afternoon, and we were sitting on a dusty wooden bench inside a large shed at an agricultural fair in Maine. In the ring before us, two fawn-colored steers were straining to pull a metal sled loaded with a ton and a half of concrete weights. As the sled moved, it left a shiny, packed trail in the loose earth.

"Haw! Haw!"

A shouting man with a fierce mien leaped around the animals, whacking with a long stick on the withers and flanks to keep them pulling together in the right direction.

"Whoa!" the man roared, as the one of his animals stumbled to its knees. Its companion lurched in the yoke, and the spectators fell silent as the man sorted out his team. The clock was ticking; the three of them had three minutes to get the sled as far as they could.

Just then, the quiet was pierced by the shriek of a piglet from a nearby enclosure. "Kweeeee! Kweeeee! Kwe --"

"Another little piggy getting his medicine," I remarked.

The 11-year-old looked over with a queasy expression.

I don't know," she said, "if I can do it."

A few minutes earlier, we'd seen a litter of piglets undergoing preparations for the annual pig scramble. This event had been looming on our family calendar for the two years since we'd last been here.

"I can't wait to do the pig scramble!" this daughter had said every time the subject of Union Fair had arisen.

"I am doing the pig scramble!" she'd crowed a few hours earlier, after getting her name on the list.

Now the moment was nigh, and it was all rather too real. In this very ring where steers were straining and their owner was whacking, amid the smells of livestock and diesel and fried dough, there would soon be ten children trying to bag eight piglets that would squeal and resist furiously. Did she really want to be among them?

"Kweee!" shrieked another unhappy customer.

"You won't hurt him," I reassured her.

"Grab him by the hind legs," said a voice from behind us. We looked back to see an elderly fairgoer smiling from her folding chair.

"Don't grab him by his middle, or he'll just squirm away," she went on. "Get his hind legs, kneel down and get the bag right over his head."

The girl nodded. That was good advice. She felt braver already.

"But first," said the woman, her eyes twinkling, "you've got to win the lottery."

"Yes," the girl said happily. "Maybe I won't get picked for the pig scramble. It would still be fun to watch."

"Two hundred and sixty-four feet, ten inches," said a man's amplified, slightly muffled voice. We all applauded as the man with the stick led his fawn-colored team from the ring.

A short time later, the same voice read out a list of names for the pig scramble. To the 11-year-old's immense relief, hers was not among them.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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