A buoyant, sprawling, motley affair, St. Peter’s Fiesta offers something for everyone. And on a typical Fiesta Friday—just as the twilight dwindles and a breeze whisks away the day’s heat—each demographic gravitates toward its designated zone. Sicilian elders hunker beside the plywood stage and tap their feet to Sinatra covers. Meanwhile, tourists settle on the perimeter bleachers, content to observe the proceedings and rue their consumption of a second deep-fried Mounds bar. Young parents command their own domain: the carnival attractions, where they clasp toddlers to their chests and plunge down the potato sack slides. As these thrills unfold, local teens drift away to administer hickeys beneath the winking, kaleidoscopic lights of the Tilt-a-Whirl.
But one event brings together young and old, native and out-of-towner, seaman and landlubber. One event compels all to brave the mid-afternoon sun, to flout the city’s open container laws, and to confront irrefutable evidence of just how juvenile we all can be. It bears not even the faintest connection to Fiesta’s religious origins, but it’s easily the most popular event on the program. I’m speaking, of course, about that wince-inducing test of bravery and balance: the Greasy Pole.
On one level, the basis of the Greasy Pole’s greatness is easy to pin down. Anyone who has witnessed a single round of the competition—even via a wobbly YouTube video—can cite a host of reasons for its appeal. He or she will point out the outrageous costumes, the name’s salacious undertones, and the exquisite tension of knowing that—at any moment—a man may find himself entirely responsible for squashing his own testicles. But I would like to examine two of the subtler charms of the Greasy Pole, the nuances that exalt this event above mere slapstick—and, indeed, above other sporting competitions.
As a point of comparison, I must tell you about another wildly reckless contest. Known as “Pigs-N-Fords,” it headlines the annual Tillamook County Fair on the North Coast of Oregon. In the summer of 2003, I was fortunate enough to witness the event, which invites six local men to race three times around a dirt track. The twist is that each man completes his laps atop the naked chassis of a Model T Ford—and that a squealing Yorkshire piglet rides shotgun. Specifically, a man must fetch a different pig for each circuit and keep the invariably terrified and often recalcitrant creature under his control at all times. Needless to say, this doesn’t always go as planned, leading to the spectacle of fugitive bacon. With pigs zigzagging across the dirt, drivers must weave and swerve in their smoking 1920s jalopies, a generation of Fords not exactly known for their tight handling.
Yes, Pigs-N-Fords is a splendid event—and one I encourage you to seek out on the Internet. But it does not begin to match the grandeur of the Greasy Pole, for reasons that will become evident.
For starters, the Greasy Pole is deeply rooted in its cultural and environmental setting. Gloucester’s slice of the Atlantic serves not merely as a picturesque backdrop, but also the grounds for the city’s very existence. Yet this existence has always been precarious, vulnerable to storms, declining fish stocks, and the possibility that our resident basking sharks may one day mutate, flop onshore, and devour us all like so many smelts.
The Greasy Pole, then, is a perfect symbol of this relationship. The timber evokes a schooner’s mast, and its recumbent angle both echoes the ocean’s horizon line and reminds the sailor of the constant danger of capsize. As the competitors tiptoe down its tapering length, they lord over the water below. But one false step pitches them headlong into the brine, a cartoonish display only accentuated by the capes, masks, and fake tits some elect to wear. Like the City of Gloucester itself, the pole walkers are suspended between maritime glory and calamity.
In contrast, Pigs-N-Fords bears no real connection to its place; the dirt track could be transplanted to any township from Idaho to Indiana without compromising its operation or significance. While it’s true that all of Tillamook reeks of pigpen, this is a byproduct not of the pork industry, but rather the town’s ubiquitous dairy cows. Resourceful farmers convert their Holstein manure into a nitrogenous slurry, which they discharge onto pastureland with huge, oscillating irrigation cannons. For Tillamook to match the cultural synergy of the Greasy Pole, it would need to devise an American Gladiators-style competition, wherein flannel-clad farmers hustle through a hay bale gauntlet, while dodging a gracefully arcing fusillade of liquefied shit.
To fully appreciate the Greasy Pole, one must also consider its educational value—specifically, its illustration of various physical and mathematical principles in a way that no textbook could ever match. First, there is the phenomenon of friction—which, when coupled with the downward tug of gravity—allows us under normal conditions to walk in a predictable manner. But the Greasy Pole does not present normal conditions. Instead, the pole’s coefficient of friction is reduced to zero by a proprietary blend of axle grease, whale oil, and the hot tears of local environmentalists. Thus, when a pole walker ventures forward, Newton’s Third Law dictates that his foot will shoot out in a random direction, undermining his center of gravity and sending him into a tumble whose trajectory is subject to a host of complicated variables, including wind direction and the volume of Coors Light and linguiça sausage sloshing in his belly.
From this moment on, the walker is at the mercy of gravity and the structural integrity of his pelvis and facial bones. He may spill cleanly into the air—or he may carom off the pole at any angle, not unlike a human Plinko chip. His fall may last anywhere between 0.3 and 2.0 seconds, depending on the tides and whether he has—in the cruelest statistical outcome—landed astraddle, leaving him to clutch desperately at the pole while his scrotum vibrates like a crisply struck bell. Over the course of an afternoon’s competition, a young spectator might watch twenty men make four or five attempts. If she has been observing closely—scribbling notes and employing an accelerometer—she should have no trouble passing the Advanced Placement physics exam.
In comparison, the Pigs-N-Fords contest is, from a scientific perspective, rather ho-hum. The cars travel a set path around the elliptical track, and the physical forces this motion unleashes are generally absorbed and rendered invisible by the Ford’s tires and steel frame. The one exception is when a driver loses his grip on a piglet, just as the vehicle is exiting a turn. Unfettered from the car’s centripetal force, the pig squirts from the Model T along a line that is tangent to the curve—a line that, God willing, does not intersect with the track’s Jersey barriers. The entertainment value may be high. But surely there are simpler, gentler ways to teach our children the stark truths of Darwinian selection.
I moved from Texas to Gloucester in late June of 2008, just a day or two before the opening of St. Peter’s Fiesta. I knew almost nothing about the city or its customs—aside from what national news outlets had recently revealed about the astonishing fecundity of its high school girls. Thus, I couldn’t understand why—around 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—the streets of my downtown neighborhood had grown eerily quiet. As a Southern boy with agnostic tendencies, my only hypothesis was that Gloucesterites were a pious bunch—and, with the Rapture having come to pass, I had been left behind. When I walked outside, I expected to see cars embedded in telephone poles, their drivers spirited away and now chuckling at my bewilderment and damnation.
Eventually, I spotted a middle-aged couple hastening down Dale Avenue toward the harbor. “Hey!” I called. “Where are you headed? Where is everyone?”
They looked at me with the mixture of exasperation, amusement, and contempt that I would come to know and love, as it defines the native’s attitude toward outsiders like me.
“Pavilion Beach!” they said. Then: “It’s the Greasy Pole, ya jerk!”
I thought about running back inside for my sunglasses, but I didn’t know Pavilion Beach from Pismo, and I feared I’d lose their trail. So I followed at a polite distance, slowly becoming aware of the tinny sound of a public address system—and the dim roar of a crowd. At last, I squeezed onto the packed beach and caught my first glimpse of a fat man in a dress pinwheeling into the inky water. Standing on my tiptoes, I realized that it was, indeed, the Rapture—and that I’d managed to make it into heaven after all.