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Fridays with Fred: A good ‘ole greased pole fight

A look at the old tradition of grease pole fights.

A ground squirrel enjoys his breakfast of dew-tipped grass. Strong Stadium looms in the distance, a sunlit fortress in the early morning of a Saturday in September circa 1950. A rumble and rattle threaten the quiet and as the noise draws nearer, the ground squirrel peeps in alarm and then disappears down its hole. A battered truck clatters onto the intramural playing field east of the stadium and several Beloit College sophomore men, clad in white T-shirts, descend, open up the hatch, and lift out several heavy barrels, along with a few shovels and pickaxes. They set to work at the designated spot, tearing up clods of earth, crafting a circular trench surrounding a small island, where they dig a deep hole.

A sophomore named Bob calls out, “Hey! Look what I found!” and lifts a ragged remnant of trouser leg. Another student turns up a shoe and then a shovel clanks on what appears to be someone’s shin bone. Relics—or trophies—from the year before. A second team lifts a 20-foot steel pole, donated by Beloit Iron Works, and meticulously slathers it from top to bottom with axel grease before hoisting it, Iwo Jima-fashion, into the posthole. Next, they wrestle with the barrels, tipping their gurgling contents into the moat. A thick sludge of used crankcase oil gathered from local garages mixes with water and loose dirt. The resultant pudding would slow down the fastest cheetah, let alone any freshman who had a hankering for pole-climbing. After hours of labor, the sophomores kick back and wolf down slightly greasy sandwiches. And wait.

A handful of sophomores arrive at 2 p.m., followed by a horde of freshmen, faces and arms and even hair covered in grease to fend off skin-damaging oil. A few cars drive onto the field and numerous spectators trek in, keeping a wary distance from the glistening pole. By 2:30, the lines of battle take shape, the outnumbered sophomores surrounding pole and moat, while a few others hide behind cars, preparing for counter-attacks. The nervous freshmen, numbering some 130, huddle together and then form tentative lines. Some of them glance at the distant pole where the small white flag nailed to its top, whips in the wind, taunting. The whistle blows.

Freshmen, howling, “WE EAT SOPHS!” charge across the field. Beloit’s famous greased pole fight begins at last. If the freshmen capture the flag (something they haven’t accomplished since 1938) they won’t have to wear the dratted green beanies known as “dinks” anymore. If they lose, they wear them until November’s Homecoming game.

Sophomores brace themselves for the onslaught as freshmen leap into the moat. Pristine T-shirts tear and stain and even industrial-strength borax will never lighten them to a color whiter than umber. At first, all is chaos: struggling, writhing bodies, head to toe in grease and mud and something in between one could only call slime. Just as the freshmen strategy becomes apparent—create a human pyramid and reach the pole at all costs—the whistle blows and the three-minute round ends. Freshmen and sophomores alike cease battling, catch breath, expel mud, and wipe grease from around the eyes.

Round two begins in much the same fashion, only with signs of fatigue. This time, a freshman named Bob (there are at least 30 named Bob) manages to clamber onto the shoulders of a friend on top of a friend and, with a lateral leap, finds himself on the pole and slipping fast. He grips as best he can and inches a smidgeon upwards. Then a sophomore grasps his leg and pulls him down. Another Bob climbs a few inches higher, pulls a small towel out of his back pocket and begins rubbing grease off the pole. His arms tire. His weary legs can no longer hold on and he falls into the pit. The whistle blasts.

A few students lie on the field, gasping. Others sit, hunched over, stunned. A group of freshmen cluster together, strategizing. Before the whistle blows again for the third and final round, freshmen form a ragged line. Spectators call out to friends and then as the whistle tweets, cheer them on. A young professor stands on top of his Pontiac for a better view and looks as if he wouldn’t mind joining the fray. This time, the exhausted sophomores let the pole do its job. Freshmen form their pyramid once again and one of the Bobs grips the pole, hauls himself up a few feet, wipes the pole with a tatter of newspaper, and then with muscles straining, biceps bulging, promptly loses ground. There is time for one more valiant effort as Bob IV claws his way to within ten inches of the tippy-top. As his hand reaches for the fluttering flag, he feels his body slipping down toward the expectant faces of men mired in the pit below. The whistle shrills and the 1938 record remains safe for another year.

The men hike to nearby Turtle Creek where they plunge into the soothing water. Ten minutes later, a fisherman smoking a pipe and waiting for another catfish watches an oil slick drift by in a gentle, eddying wave.

Note: Beloit held its greased pole fight annually from 1925 to 1953, with a break during World War II. The freshman-sophomore contest received national press, including National Geographic and Life, which featured spectacular photographs in 1937 and 1947, respectively. Two of Beloit’s most accomplished News Service photographers, Bob Miller’50 and Ray Metzker ’53, snapped the photographs shown here.

Fred Burwell ’86
August 30, 2012

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