art copyright 2015 Josh Chambers
By: Rob Azevedo
I was driving north on Interstate 93 in a power red Honda Civic hatchback when I hooked the curve near the Tripoli Road exit. I was on my way to the 1997 Scottish Highland Games at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH. It was to be a full day and I was ready for action. I had a vat of black coffee resting between my thighs, two bottles of spring water, a new spiral notebook and $23 in cash.
Approaching the exit, I adjusted my rearview mirror and noticed a yellow Cadillac with New York plates coming up fast on my fender. There was a massive head driving the vehicle. I’d never seen such vast amounts of hair and flesh in my life.
I brought my sunglasses down to the bridge of my nose and got into the right hand lane, catching the rumble strip. I wanted to get a closer look at the man driving the car. I was nearly hanging out the car window as the Cadillac passed me quickly. My eyes blew wide open as I stared into the passing car. The man driving had a thick beard and arms of concrete. His chest was pressing through a red and white flannel shirt. His hands were that of a lifelong mason.
Then, as the Cadillac shot ahead of me, I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear fender that said: “I THROW ROCKS FOR A LIVING.”
My Lord! I thought. I’m in the midst of something spectacular.
As I walked up the road towards the gates of the mountain, my stomach began to churn with excitement. I started focusing on the Scottish Highland Games and what they meant to the nearly 100,000 spectators that attend the three-day event annually.
I knew I’d be witnessing some crude forms of gamesmanship, where kilted strongmen from around the globe would test their strength and endurance and accuracy. These athletes would take part in the caber and sheaf tossing events. They would hurl rocks hooked to chains and flip long wooden poles into the air.
The sun beat down on my narrow shoulders and dryness came to my throat as I walked along the rows of card tables littered with Scottish paraphernalia. Needing a pint of something cool and frothy, I decided to stop resisting the urge to spend the entire day at the strongman competitions. I envied these men. I yearned to possess their vision and dedication and unflappable grit.
Plus, they would be competing on the east side of the mountain, near the tents marked beer.
There is something inspirational about the strongman competitions. The athletes encourage the weak to be strong, the feeble to be rugged and the meek to be boisterous. They bring hair to the chests of young boys and life to the hearts of the soft-minded.
As I crouched down on the damp grass, I saw the sleeves of male spectators being turned up over tiny biceps. People were rubbing thick strands of spit into baby smooth palms, gearing up for the show. Weathered old-timers began beating their brittle chests like Vikings as teenage boys charged up the surrounding hillside.
The energy was spreading.
I began to take on a new persona myself. The tee-shirt I wore was now wrapped around my waist as my ballooning gut basked in the sun. The sleeves of my tee-shirt were hiked over my shoulders, exposing my hideous muscle definition. I was among my people now. Each of us searching for a hero on this warm September morning.
Steve Pulcinella, a then 34 year old gym owner from Philadelphia, sat at a picnic table chewing on a power bar, preparing himself for his first toss. He was covered in chalk, and his blue t-shirt looked like it had been used to clean blackboards. Only three minutes before, Pulcinella had tossed a 52-pound cube of concrete – attached to a metal chain, no less – a mind blowing 72 feet. The crowd roared.
Another man, this one weighing somewhere near 300 pounds and wearing a hat straight out of the TV series “The Rat Patrol”, sat down next to Pulcinella, rubbing his sweaty, bearded face into a towel.
“I gotta work on my clips,” the man said to Pulcinella.
“Your clips are fine. Just keep them under 10 seconds and you’ll be all set,” Pulcinella assured him.
“You think?” the man asked.
“I know,” said Pulcinella.
I contemplated whether to ask Pulcinella what he eats to muster such resilience. I wanted to know if he trains for these events by eating raw alligator and stalks of rhubarb for vitamins. Does he actually lift telephone poles out of the ground on the streets of Philly?
I started to pace, digging up some earth with the heel of my boot. Finally this: “So, Steve. Do you have it in you to flip the pole to 12 o’clock?”
I was referring to the part of the competition where the men take a 17-foot tall pole that weights nearly 130 pounds and flip it, trying to make the bottom of the pole land on the opposite end. The object is to flip the pole straight over, pointed directly away from the competitor. That’s what’s known as “12 o’clock.”
“If I get a solid lift, it should flip just fine,” said Pulcinella.
Pulcinella dug in, his face puffy and red. His dark brown goatee was stuck to the wood of the pole. He steadied his bulging quads against the pole and nuzzled his face into the splinters. Gripping it at the bottom, Pulcinella began to make that pole rise. First, the weight of the pole pulled him forward as he ran slowly grunting all the way. Then, with one solid push, Pulcinella sent the pole to the sky, watching it flip to about 11 o’clock. Nice toss.
The blood hadn’t drained from Pulcinella’s face before he was rushed by boys and girls for autographs. I considered heading over myself, but I needed to venture out and see what else was happening in this fair-like atmosphere.
I followed the bagpipes, walking through what felt like a funnel filled with fold-up card tables littered with information about clans and argyle attire. After filling my belly with some fried dough, I took a seat on a hill. I could hear Alex Beaton at the bottom of the hill, playing guitar and singing about Scottish nights. Alex was a crowd favorite. Hundred of people dressed in kilts, black shoes, black ties and thick wool socks were gathering around the tiny stage where he sang. Everyone had either a hot dog or burger or cold beer in their hands.
On my way home, I again considered the allure of the Scottish Highland Games. Having seen a convincing display of bravado and watching grown men rise, for a moment, above their personal oppressions, I felt a sense of comradely wash over me. I left thinking that the Highland Games isn’t just about the Fitzpatrick’s or any other Scot. It’s about hundred of nationalities coming together. It’s about unity and the celebration of a proud heritage. It’s about coming to the North Country and blowing bag pipes and tossing around some rocks and saddling up next to a member of your clan and chasing stories.