Mud and guts

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It was shockingly unladylike, hilarious and completely filthy.
Women paid to tromp through a mud-and-whatever slurry almost knee-deep, diving and sliding face-first through the mess, losing pants and shoes and inhibitions along the way.
All in pursuit of a pig.
* * *
The Mile Branch Grange Fair’s hog wrestling contest, open to men and women teams, is the quintessential local tradition.
In fact, when someone around here says, “Hey, are you going to Mile Branch?” you can almost guarantee they really mean, “Are you going to watch hog wrestling Saturday night?”
It draws the locals who’ve been coming so long they can’t remember when the event started, and the uninitiated who read about it in newspapers or hear about it from friends or coworkers and wonder just what these country folks are up to.
It’s truly something to see.
* * *
I wasn’t surprised when my 18-year-old sister Olivia announced she’d joined a three-person team for the competition.
And again, I wasn’t surprised when she announced her teammates: her friend Lydia Bardo, and Shelly Baringer, a friend of Lydia’s.
It wasn’t a shock the three had teamed up: They won the competition in 2004 and were going back to see if they still had the touch.
* * *
My sister grew up on the farm. She rakes and bales hay and straw, knows how to run a shovel and has muscles to rival any girl she knows. But she also was on the prom court and could spend days in the bathroom fussing with her hair and makeup.
Lydia grew up with three brothers on a dairy farm and showed feeder calves throughout her 4-H career. She’s also a girlie-girl, a licensed nail technician who does landscaping jobs on the side.
Shelly’s no stranger to the farm either, helping on her grandpa’s dairy during her childhood. She’s also a confessed big-time shopaholic.
Looking at the three of them, you might never guess they’d be so into such a rough-and-tumble event, or that they’d been champions just a couple years ago.
But could they do it again?
* * *
People started arriving at the grounds near Alliance, Ohio, three hours before the hog-wrestling event. Hundreds of feet of bleacher sections filled up fast, and others stood on hay wagons pulled near the pit, or crowded two or three deep around the announcer’s stand.
There still wasn’t enough room.
When the contest got under way, announcer Albert Johnston confirmed it: This thing had gotten so popular and so out of control, he and the committee that organizes it had to turn away dozens of wannabe teams.
The teams who registered quickest, weeks before the fair, would get the chance to compete.
* * *
Their theme was Joshee’s Girls. Olivia, Lydia and Shelly were wrestling in memory of Josh Bardo, Lydia’s brother, who drowned July 1. Lydia’s other brothers, twins Luke and Levi, were two-thirds of another team.
Other teams were coworkers, cousins, friends and siblings, novices and repeat performers alike.
Some participated in the pre-wrestling costume contest, dressed as city slickers with goggles and rubber gloves, or Team P.I.G. in bright pink shorts and Superman-style T-shirts.
But it was evident that some were there for one reason alone: To get that pig into the barrel.
* * *
The object is to get a squirming hog into a 55-gallon barrel in the center of a muddy pit as quickly as possible.
Sounds simple, but it’s never that easy. The clock – and the pig – keeps running, even when you don’t.
When you reach for that hog, it slips through your hands and you end up facedown in the mud. When you finally get it stopped, it’s hard to find ‘handles’ to pick it up.
And if you’re lucky enough to get it off the ground, you’ve got a better chance of dropping the hog or your pants than landing it butt-first in the barrel.
Smart aleck Johnston and that crowd of hundreds – oohing and aahing the whole time – will be sure to let you know when you’ve made a muddy fool of yourself.
* * *
Joshee’s Girls drew the 43rd slot. They were disappointed: Wrestling early left too much room for another team to come on strong and beat them.
The girls watched patiently from the sidelines, sizing up the competition.
The best team so far posted a time of 9.8 seconds.
Then Joshee’s Girls were up.
* * *
Lydia, in her pink shorts and T-shirt and duct tape slippers, was the first to let go of the hog-panel fence when the air horn blew.
She started for that 100-pound Hampshire, and Olivia and Shelly moved in. The crowd hollered and cheered, pumping energy into the girls’ high-knee steps across the pit.
“Get it! Get it!” Olivia screamed, that half-deadpan, half-giddy waver in her voice.
I knew what she was feeling; emotions from when I did this years ago came rushing back. I screamed for them to get it, too.
Lydia, using the same technique that helped their team win before, kicked it into high gear. She bent over that hog and, in a giant bearhug backed by buff biceps, single-handedly lifted that hog out of the mud.
The pig squealed, the girls squealed, the crowd got louder. They might just make this happen.
Olivia and Shelly grabbed for the hog’s back end and guided it toward the barrel, pushing and lifting it and dragging their feet through the mud as quick as they could.
The crowd roared and the girls pumped their fists into the air after the pig slid into the barrel.
The new time to beat: 5.9 seconds.
* * *
Just getting that hog in the barrel was a victory in itself. The girls celebrated, hugging and screaming and pulling one another down into the mud bath.
There were three or four more women’s teams yet to go. Some of their fiercest competitors stood between them and the championship. It was too early to think they’d won.
So they headed toward the shower – a fire hose suspended high overhead – to rinse the mud from their ponytails and pores, and pray another team wouldn’t have such luck.
The next team in the pit finished in a close call, just 6.8 seconds. The next, 7.7, then 8.3. And then the last women’s team was up.
More farm girls. Shelly’s cousin. They knew how to do this, too.
And when the air horn blew, they rushed that pig and dropped it into the barrel, lickety-split.
The world around Team 43 slowed down and the cheers of the crowd faded while they waited for Albert Johnston to announce this last team’s official time.
This team, it could be the one to beat them.
But Johnston said 7.1 seconds.
More smiles and hugs. Joshee’s Girls had done it again.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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