Steamboat Springs As a two-time grand champion swine fitter, I know a thing or two about what it takes to get animals ready for a county fair.
Now, a grand champion swine fitter should not be confused with a grand champion pig. There is about a $990 difference. At least that is the way it worked in Pennsylvania's Huntingdon County Fair where I showed for 10 straight years.
You see, a grand champion pig has judges licking their lips and dreaming of pork chops and spare ribs. This pig usually comes with a bidder willing to pay at least $1,000.
But the grand champion swine fitter has a completely different honor the knowledge of owning the cleanest pig in the county. And this pig comes with $10 in prize money, a giant purple rosette ribbon and a trophy with a metallic pig and the words "Grand Champion Fitter" inscribe on it.
Coming from a long line of swine showers, my family never had the knack for producing grand champion pigs. In fact, we had the uncanny ability to raise pigs we feared would be too light or too heavy to meet the fair's rather lenient weight standards.
But we did dominate the clean category, or what we affectionately referred to as the "pig pageant."
So right about this time every year, in between hay cuttings and three weeks before the fair, we would begin getting our pigs ready for the big day.
Of the all the animals you can take to the fair, pigs might appear to be the most harmless and require the least amount of effort. It doesn't hurt as much when they step on your foot. They don't take the training of horses, the shearing of lambs or the leading of steers.
But pigs are work, especially the stubborn ones.
The first step in preparing these pigs for their upcoming beauty contest was corralling them into a pen small enough to do what we called a pig makeover.
My father is a simple Pennsylvania farmer, and he did not have the money to "foolishly" spend on any fancy contraptions for these pig procedures. So, we built our own stall using two tough plywood boards that we baler twined to the gate.
Admittedly, the occasional glitch would come when uncooperative pigs would try to jump out of this lean-to beauty parlor. Laying a wooden plank across the top of the boards blocked the escape route. For the really feisty ones, we would recruit the smallest child to sit on top for the added weight.
But the hardest part of the job was convincing the pigs to come into the pen.
Now, in all my years of 4-H, I must have taken close to 20 pigs and the rest of my siblings near a total of 60. And not one of those pigs were what you would consider tame.
It was a complete act of God every time a pig found its way into the pen. In what seemed like a legion of pigs, we would have to target one to corner, chase and in extreme situations half-carry into the tiny pen.
Once the pig was in the pen and everyone's blood pressure, including the pig's, had dropped, the real work began. The second step is when the razors come out to whisk away a lifetime's worth of ear and tail hair.
Baby smooth ears and tails are as critical in a pig-fitting contest as Vaseline smiles and sequined dresses are in the Miss America Pageant, and like any beauty contest, there are tricks to the good looks.
I won't lie, we did try a few, such as hair-removing creams, and once we even splurged on an electric razor. But the simple truth is nothing works better than a 10-cent Bic razor and bottle of shaving cream.
Believe me, the judges notice. They feel the ears, make sure there is a thumb's length of hair left on the end of tail, look for evenly trimmed eyelashes, and when the competition is really tight, peek inside ears to see if they're clean.
But invariably, the real winner of the beauty contest is the cleanest and whitest pig in the ring. There was only one way we could get our pink Yorkshire pigs to sparkle lots of scrubbing and a bottle of baby powder.
Which brings us to the third and messiest step: the pigwash. The general rule of thumb when it comes to pig washing is the cleaner the pig the dirtier the washer.
Our family practiced in the ultimate group shower eight pigs, four kids and one garden hose.
My siblings and I each had a designated role during wash time: the soaper, a hoseman and two scrubbers.
The soaper was the first up and had the task of squirting a line of lemon-scented dishwashing soap down all eight pigs' backs. The soaper would then stand in the corner and wait until called upon to supply the backup dousing soap onto old kitchen scrub brushes.
It was the hoseman who had the most powerful role in this sacred shower ritual. Standing on the outside, the hoseman would spray water into the make shift pen indiscriminating between person or pig. If the hoseman was worth his salt, the wash would not end until the three kids on the inside were wetter and sudsier than the pigs. Then the scrubbing began.
Any veteran pig washer will tell you it's useless to chase after pigs. The secret to being a good scrubber was to stand in one spot and let the pigs run around you. And so as the lowest and dirtiest in this pig washing hierarchy, the scrubbers' best hopes were to frantically shoot out their scrub-brushing hands and pray they would scrape away the dirt on any passing pig.
When all the dirt came off, the pigs were dried off with old towels, sprinkled with baby powder and then sent back to a pen of fresh straw bedding, where they would lounge until fair.
As for their owners, we were exhausted, filthy and above all, hungry for sausage.